The Moon and the Moccasin

By DeusExMacintosh

Enjoying the peace of absent window installers this Easter Weekend (back on Monday unfortunately due to the ‘negotiable’ religious holidays of the Roman Law tradition here in Scotland) I’ve been sparing a thought for what Easter means to me as a non-religious Christian of Quaker affiliation. After a childhood of Sunday School thanks to the very non-fundie Uniting Church I know the bones of the story: Jesus was arrested, found guilty at trial and tortured for fun after which he suffered through a painful public execution. He was buried in a Jewish tomb but then apparently rose from the dead.

Over the centuries different Christian traditions have emphasised the part of the story they felt was most important. Catholics re-enacted Passion Plays of the suffering of Christ (to emphasise his Humanity) and even kept his body on their crucifix, post-Reformation Protestants focus on the miracle of resurrection (to emphasise his Divinity) and keep the cross bare. Both culminate in the noble sacrifice that “he died so that your sins would be forgiven”. Non-Christians at this point may be fighting the rising instinct to flee, if they haven’t already [Wait, come back! Quakers don’t approve of evangelism!] but I think there is actually a point to the story for non-Christians as much as for those still hung up in theological arguments over the Trinity or the literal truth of scripture.

They always say “you can’t kill an idea” and that to me sums up what my personal Christian faith is about. Regardless of whether you think the historical Jesus was entirely human or the Son of God, divinely inspired or completely round the twist, a miracle worker or a charlatan, what has persisted over the centuries is his simple message from the Sermon on the Mount – what we call the Golden Rule.

The “Golden Rule” has been attributed to Jesus of Nazareth: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12, see also Luke 6:31). The common English phrasing is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. A similar form appeared in a Catholic catechism around 1567 (certainly in the reprint of 1583).

In revisiting the Passion and the Gospels for SL’s new novel Bring Laws and Gods, this rule came up in connection with the ideas of positive and negative liberty famously outlined by Isaiah Berlin in Two Concepts of Liberty. In this extract from the novel, the very Roman TV news anchor Severus Agrippa is wining and wooing Cynara Arimathea (daughter of Joseph) over lunch during a break in the trial of Jesus for criminal damage, assault and affray (to wit: attacking money changers and starting a riot in the Jerusalem Temple).

‘Hillel was a famous and learned Rabbi; he died about twenty years ago. There was a story going around that he could recite the Torah while standing on one leg, and that a Roman visitor to the Temple asked for a demonstration. By that stage, Hillel was an old man; he stood on one leg and told the Roman, that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.’

‘That’s appropriately Delphic. I like the sound of this Hillel. What did Ben Yusuf say to your brother?’

‘Something very similar, Severus; he told Isaac that he should do to others what he would want done to himself.’

‘That’s actually very different,’ Agrippa said softly.

‘How so? Please, no hairsplitting Greek philosophy. It makes my head hurt.’

‘I’m Roman, Cynara, we don’t do philosophy; this is simpler than that. Your Rabbi Hillel’s injunction is negative, telling people only that they should not interfere with others. Ben Yusuf’s is positive, telling people that you should interfere with others, that you should do something to them.’

‘But only good things, Severus, that’s the point!’

‘Whose good, Cynara?’

His eyes sparkled and she suspected he was smiling at his own cleverness.

I don’t share either Agrippa, Berlin or SL’s unease with this, as to me the instruction includes its own solution. My proposition is that most adults are fully aware that their desires, tastes and priorities are entirely personal and likely to differ markedly from that of their neighbour – you might enjoy receiving a CD of Slim Dusty’s greatest hits for Christmas but there wouldn’t be much point giving one to your System of a Down-loving neighbour. You know that you’d hate to be given Metal’s Twenty Greatest Riffs therefore fulfilling the instruction involves an exercise in empathy and imagination, to put yourself in his/her shoes and consider not only your action but how it is likely to be perceived by your target. The Australian film Lantana did this well in the scene where a well-meaning neighbour cleans the house of a family in crisis without being invited to, mortally offending her now former friend who perceives it as implied criticism of her parenting/cleaning abilities. Or as the proverb attributed to the Cheyenne tribe of Native American Indians puts it – “Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins”.

Thanks to a speech by David Cameron and co-ordinated press releases from the Department for Work and Pensions, there’s been another round of confected outrage in the British press this week just in time for Easter, not just about benefits cheats but also the valid long-term Incapacity Benefit claims for minor ailments and “self-inflicted” conditions like drug and alcohol dependence or obesity.

I was interviewed on Thursday about the increasingly hostile public environment that disabled people now face – the national charity Scope is publishing the results of a survey that confirms the increasing levels of abuse and even hate crime we now encounter, which is encouraged by both political rhetoric and press campaigns like The Sun’s “Dob in a Dosser” hotline, both of which encourage the great British public to inform on neighbours and make judgements on their moral and national worth. I was asked, as a person with a disability who relies on these benefits, what I thought the solution would be. All I could think of was a request that before people rush to easy judgment (even though it makes them feel better during a time of financial strife and economic contraction) they walk two moons in my moccasins. How would you feel if you were disabled but an anonymous neighbour decided to tell the DWP you were a fraud, whether maliciously or by mistake? How would you feel if you were publicly written off by a government minister as one of those “who do not add anything to the greatness of this country”? How would you feel every time you stepped outside when society has effectively been given permission to spy on you and your lifestyle? How would you feel if you were told your only worth was in working but you were too ill or disabled to do so? How would you feel?

For me Easter is the chance to practice that kind of empathy through the story of Jesus. Why was he willing, not only to die but accept prolonged physical suffering and public humiliation for something he couldn’t prove? Are we that important or is he, or is it the idea of forgiveness? At Easter I feel his doubt at Gethsemane, his defiance in court, his surrender to physical pain under torture and finally his words on the cross, still begging forgiveness of God – not on his own behalf but that of others. And I’m proud that as a Christian I am encouraged to practice this skill each April just as the seasons of the new year start, so that I am prepared to walk in another man’s moccasins before I even consider doing anything unto him.

This is my meaning of Easter. I hope you all have a peaceful and happy weekend with your families.


  1. Posted April 24, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    There are a couple of variants to silver and golden rules that toughen them up.

    For Silver, you have Asimov’s laws of robotics, which extend it with “or through inaction, allow harm”

    For both gold and silver rules, you have, from the Lao-Tze and Asimov’s zeroth law from later books, the extension not just to other individuals, but the collective, humanity. (there’s a minus-one law too, to sentience not humanity)

    I’d expect there’d be a left/right divide on zeroth law version of the golden rule, if not zeroth law and asimov’s inaction clauses generally.

    (I suppose there’s a bronze reciprocity rule, the no-escalation of retribution clauses in Hammurabi)

    Now, … Atheist me off to swap St Matt’s for the Oster Oratorio … so many of Christianity’s sins are almost redeemed by such BWVs (with John Eliott Gardiner as officiating priest)

  2. Movius
    Posted April 24, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Discounting the historical accuracy issues. My main issue with the bible is that there is very little to say that the “love thy neighbour”/”Do unto others…” stuff is any more important than the “RAPE AND KILL EVERYONE”/”Pi is exactly 3” stuff. At explanations that aren’t contradicted elsewhere anyway.

    Regardless, the article raises a much more important question. Just what are Metal’s twenty greatest riffs. Having already started Easter Sunday by listening to New Millenium Cyanide Christ at high volume, I shall spend the day finding out.

  3. Posted April 24, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I am with DEM on the positive and negative conceptions point, because both require attention to the other person as a person-with-feelings-and-wishes, not as a mere object of action “for their own good” or “what they should want”.

    It is not the same as “Two Concepts of Liberty”, since neither Hillel’s or Yeshua ben Yusuf’s conception is concerned with the capacities (cognitive or otherwise) of the other person, but rather how you are behaving towards them and their wishes. Severus is importing a notion of ‘interfering’ which is not inherent in the positive gold rule. After all, do you want your wishes overruled? Do you want to have imposed obligations of service which fail to pay such attention to your wishes?

    The positive version is a stronger level of attention to others, but a stronger level of interference does not follow from that.

    It is an easy conflation to make, though, which is a danger in the positive conception but it is in fact a subtle subversion of the rule itself.

    Then again, subverting the second principle of Christianity is a full-time occupation of so many Christian ministers and priests. The Quakers have a good reputation as “true Christians” precisely because they do not have such.

    Given Yeshua’s wider preaching, it is reasonable to infer that second principle had the implication of “you are not allowed to use God to strip people of moral protections”: that is, it was an attention-to-others limit on the first principle (“love God”). Hence Yeshua’s anger at the moneylenders, who were using God’s authority to profit from those least able to pay via the Temple-money-and-sacrifice monopoly.

    Hence also the priestly/clerical interest in subverting the second principle, so as to use God to strip all manner of folk of their moral protections.

  4. kvd
    Posted April 24, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    as the proverb attributed to the Cheyenne tribe of Native American Indians puts it – “Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins”

    Lyrics for Movius (with respectful acknowledgement of SL’s earlier comment that “great truths can also sometimes be a bit glib”):

    If I could be you, if you could be me
    For just one hour, if we could find a way
    To get inside each other’s mind
    If you could see you through my eyes
    Instead your own ego I believe you’d be
    I believe you’d be surprised to see
    That you’ve been blind

    Walk a mile in my shoes
    just walk a mile in my shoes
    Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
    Then walk a mile in my shoes

    Now if we spend the day
    Throwin’ stones at one another
    ‘Cause I don’t think, ’cause I don’t think
    Or wear my hair the same way you do
    Well, I may be common people
    But I’m your brother
    And when you strike out
    You’re tryin’ to hurt me
    It’s hurtin’ you, Lord HAVE mercy

    Walk a mile in my shoes
    just walk a mile in my shoes
    Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
    Then walk a mile in my shoes

    Now there are people on reservations
    And out in the ghetto
    And brother there, but, for the grace of God
    Go you and I,
    If I only had wings of a little angel
    Don’t you know, I’d fly
    To the top of a mountain
    And then I’d cry, cry, cry

    Walk a mile in my shoes
    just walk a mile in my shoes
    Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
    Then walk a mile in my shoes

    (words & music by Joe South)

  5. Posted April 24, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Just had to let a large number of people out of the spammer; I’m assuming you’re all coming via the piece in The Australian. Apologies for that, everyone seems to be running around every which way today and not attending to bloggy stuff.

    One thing that doing the research for my novel taught me was that we do religion a great disservice by pretending that all the world’s religions have similar moral precepts, or that they share an underlying similarity. They don’t; in fact, to pretend they do is cod anthropology of the worst sort, for which I recommend a dose of Napoleon Chagnon. I realise that the attempt to drag the different traditions together is borne of a desire to encourage interfaith dialogue and stop people cutting each other’s throats, and I get that, but I strongly suspect that in so doing we are living a lie, so when there are vast conflicts even between related religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam, for example), we are caught unawares.

    Asking a Buddhist what his religion says about ‘sin’, for example, is meaningless. Buddhism has nothing to say about sin. Ask a Christian or Muslim about karma, and the same thing applies in reverse. Yes, there are broad divisions: the monotheisms are sort of similar, and there is a division into guilt and shame-based religions which I think is something we need to pay more heed to, but beyond that, it all starts getting very woolly.

    Like Lorenzo, I used to think cultural explanations were the last resort of the analytically bereft, but you only have to spend a fortnight in shame culture Japan to appreciate how different a whole society with the Bart Simpson approach to morality actually is: ‘I didn’t do it, you didn’t see me do it, you can’t prove anything’. It seems that different religions even dick with people’s neurological wiring in all sorts of odd ways (from an interesting piece in The Economist):

    Together, they pored over the World Values Survey, a poll of 87 countries that asks respondents, among other things, about their religious beliefs and the acceptability of a range of infractions, from littering to adultery. The upshot of Dr Bourrat’s and Dr Atkinson’s analysis was that people whose religion includes an omniscient, judgmental god (Christians, Muslims and so on) regard the whole range of such transgressions more harshly than those, such as Buddhists, whose religion does not. (Agnostics and atheists think like Buddhists.)

    And yet, as anyone knows, Buddhist shame-culture Japan is so clean that you can eat off the footpath, is incredibly safe, has the lowest crime rate in the world…

    Even the negative and positive conception of the golden rule manages to be subtly different across two related religions (Christianity and Judaism), as DEM’s piece points out. What about other Western traditions?

    1. Thales: Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.

    [In other words, don’t be a hypocrite]

    2. Epictetus: What you avoid yourself, seek not to impose on others.

    [f you don’t like it, other people may not like it either]

    3. Socrates: One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.

    [Even when someone else is a tosser, you just have to wear it. This is the closest to the Christian position, although it is expressed negatively, like Hillel’s version].

    4. Lucretius: It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing neither to harm nor be harmed), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.

    [First you have to be a good person, then you have to endorse the harm principle, but you also get to tell people to bug off if they harm you first. Lucretius is Roman; watch the values shift]

    5. Ulpian: To live honorably, to harm no one, to give to each his own.

    [The harm principle once again, but also reinforces the requirement to give people their deserts — with the inevitable corollary that some people don’t deserve much — and, again, the ‘live well’ requirement].

    There are plenty of others, but these are a good selection. It is plain to see that while there is a Venn diagram-like overlap, there are also significant differences. I think we have spent so much time focussing on the similarities that we’ve forgotten that there are big bits where they don’t line up. Some traditions confine treating others well only to their own citizens or free males (common among the Classical Greeks). Some confine treating others well only to one’s fellow citizens of either sex (the Roman model). Some demand ‘effort’ from the other party (Ulpian describes justice as ‘the constant and perpetual will to render to everyone his due’). That requires you to be ‘due’ something, good, bad or indifferent. What if you’re due nothing? Some are about not holding forth on standards that one can’t live up to one’s self (a common view among Stoics).

    And to what extent do modern people line up with Ulpian’s ‘strong reciprocity’?

    A fair bit, if this YouGov survey is to be believed:

    We are kidding ourselves if we think that it’s possible to get people to agree on this stuff.

  6. Posted April 25, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    DEM said “And I’m proud that as a Christian I am encouraged to practice this skill each April”

    I’m sure DEM needs no encouragement, regardless of season.

    SL speaks of cultural differences – the early Taoists and Moists stressed that the harm or gain of another should be treated as a harm or gain to oneself, and pushed the “turn the other cheek” line, but perhaps more as the duty to teach by example.

    I’d also note the variant of Marcus Aurelius, perhaps a little un-Roman when writing to himself in Greek, which could be paraphrased “People do the wrong thing because they haven’t learnt what the right thing is, so either teach them or quit bitching”

    Even the Silver rule (cause no harm), combined with M.Aurelius’ “what’s bad for the hive can’t be good for the bee”, leads to Asimov’s zeroth law. I suspect that the philosophies stressing individuality, even the agnostic views developing from cultures with religions that posit individual souls that do not recombine with the cosmos at death, do not lose individuality, are less disposed to zeroth law notions. Christianity, for example, even at its best, is only concerned with actions of individuals to individuals, not to the group. Hence Maggie Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society”.

  7. Posted April 25, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: Excellent point about what is legally sensible: since the positive rule does require stronger attention to others and, in law, as a general rule less is simpler and so better.

    [email protected]: I prefer the second iteration of that quote:

    There is no such thing as society.[fo 2] There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate. And the worst things we have in life, in my view, are where children who are a great privilege and a trust—they are the fundamental great trust, but they do not ask to come into the world, we bring them into the world, they are a miracle, there is nothing like the miracle of life—we have these little innocents and the worst crime in life is when those children, who would naturally have the right to look to their parents for help, for comfort, not only just for the food and shelter but for the time, for the understanding, turn round and not only is that help not forthcoming, but they get either neglect or worse than that, cruelty.

    There are individuals and the connections between them, but to create a reified collective identity is the path to great dangers and evils.

  8. Posted April 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I love the Hillel story, but what puzzles me is – given that someone could recite the Torah standing on one leg, why would you WANT to?!

  9. Posted April 25, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    It’s always amusing when lefties manage to misquote Thatcher; even the shortened form: ‘there is no such thing as society, there are individual people, and there are families’ is rather different in tone. She is also making a point that we need to take very, very seriously — close to Ulpian’s strong reciprocity, which we now know has biological origins. Fighting biology, rather than working within its constraints is likely to lead to mass institutional failure (witness what the Catholic Church is going through at the moment; that’s what happens when you scrap with Charlie Darwin).

    The first Marcus Aurelius quote about the importance of teaching is common to both Greek and Roman cultures; they had an almost Victorian faith in the power of education to make people good. The values in South East Asian cultures are similar, and both societies produce similar attitudes, right down to ‘teacher’ being used as a title (Magister/Magistra in Latin, Sensei in Japanese). There are also a goodly number of stories of Roman schoolchildren being chained to the desk at home in order to force them to study. The well-known joke about Vietnamese probably applied to Romans as well.

    The French rules on the duty to rescue (Articles 1372-5 of the Code Civil) have their origins in Roman law’s negotiorum gestio, which is a part of most civilian systems (including Scotland’s). The French (and Germans) have taken it a bit further than the Romans did, however.

    Negotiorum gestio is the conducting of another person’s affairs without his authorization. It was one of the ‘quasi-contracts’, along with the main Roman corporate structure, the mutual (the Romans did not come up with the limited liability corporation; that is a creation of the common law). It often arose among co-owners of a mutual.

    By way of background, mutuals share many of the same characteristics as corporations, including separate corporate ownership of property, separate legal personality and perpetual succession. Liability is limited to the extent of the company property. The main difference is that everyone who works for the mutual is a part owner, and managers’ salaries are expressed as a multiplier of the lowest worker’s salary. As should be reasonably obvious, it arose out of partnership (societas) when the number of partners became too large for each partner to be able to bind the others in contract (mandatum, or what we would call agency).

    In negotiorum gestio, the gestor/gestrix typically ‘took on’ when a neighbour or co-owner’s property was at risk (usually from fire; reading Roman jurists leads one to the inevitable conclusion that arson specifically and fire generally was a serious risk; we even have Roman insurance contracts attempting to make fire damage an ‘exposed peril’). The gestor was entitled to claim his reasonable expenses in acting for the other person (eg, in putting out a fire, caring for sick slaves, carrying on a trade or profession in order to maintain goodwill etc). He had to finish what he’d started, he could not do something the principal would not have done himself (ascertained objectively) and the standard was the bonus paterfamilias (the ‘reasonable prudent man of business’ at common law). This has been preserved in French law; the phrase is bon père de famille.

    Intriguingly, the gestor’s actings didn’t have to confer any benefit on the principal; they just had to be reasonable and genuinely in the principal’s interest (one imagines that wattle and daub houses burnt down entire rather regularly). Careless unauthorized management could, however, result in delictual liability (breach of standard at common law). Only reasonable expenses could be recovered, however; there has been significant controversy in Germany, for example, where the gestor has attempted to claim damages (ss. 677-87 BGB).

    Even more intriguingly, an action did not lie on behalf of the state if it took charge of a person’s affairs without their authorization; negotiorum gestio was entirely a matter between private individuals; first between partners, then between co-owners in a mutual, then between ordinary persons ‘in proximity’ to each other (is that the spirit of Deane J I see before me?). If the state engaged in rescue and cocked up, then not only could it not claim reasonable expenses, but it was liable in delict. This is the position at common law, which never developed anything like negotiorum gestio, and where there is no duty to rescue or go in aid. Professional rescuers, however, have a wider scope of duty at common law, which is enlivened the moment they begin to undertake their professional role (eg, the fire brigade responding to a call and beginning to put out a fire, which in Scots law establishes both reasonable foreseeability and proximity).

    All very Hayekian, when one thinks about how the systems have evolved over time.

  10. Posted April 25, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo’s fears of reification are most often realized when the reified structure is denied, as the emergent social structures are then so easily manipulated by malicious despots.

    Stalin, and those obesiant under him or engaging in silence as a political act, obviously disobeyed a zeroth law, demonstrating the need for one to be kept in mind, even if impossible to put into a statute book.

    The sad thing is that being an evil genius manipulating a society, whether through fear or poisonous ideas, seems to be much easier than being the kind of genius enlightened despot that can manipulate a society for the better.

    As to Thatcher, “There is no such thing as a personality, there are neurons and synapses between them” would be a structurally identical and as silly a statement, however much purple prose about tapestries I used in a second attempt to support the statement.

    Thatcher’s interview, the “no such thing” line continued “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation” (That’s too long for a lefty to misquote, surely)

    The “our DUTY to look after number 1 first” bit of Thatcher, together with the “dob in a dosser” DEM mentions, is not necessarily hypocritical from the better kind of atheist rightie, but it contrasts sharply to the sort of babble we get from politicians about sacrifice, putting others before ourselves, when Easter and Anzac holidays fall at the same time… Well, a week either way is a long time in rhetoric.

    DEM’s juxtaposition of Easter and “Dob in a dosser” is spot on.

  11. Posted April 26, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I am sure I would respond to your first para if I could make any sense of it whatever.

    A person has a single will, a single intention, a society does not. So your neuron-and-synapses analogy fails at the first hurdle.

    Clearly, there are such things as societies, but only in the form of people and the connections between them. Which can include all sorts of shared experiences, common preference orderings, assumptions etc. Or not so much.

    For instance, the Nordic policy regime made sense if your society is overwhelmingly Swedes. The more diverse the people in your society, the less sense it makes. For, less and less, do people have the right sort of connections and commonalities. (So importing all those Muslims is and must undermine the policy regime: a case of progressives not taking the notion of society being made up of individuals and the connections between them anywhere near seriously enough.)

  12. kvd
    Posted April 26, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I am sure I would respond to your first para if I could make any sense of it whatever.

    Lorenzo, you’ve obviously missed that great philosophical treatise by Warner Bros – Free Will (or as the s*xual extroverts call it – Free Willy).

    I am disappointed to find such an obvious gap in your education.

  13. Posted April 27, 2011 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    The sad thing is that being an evil genius manipulating a society, whether through fear or poisonous ideas, seems to be much easier than being the kind of genius enlightened despot that can manipulate a society for the better.

    Not easier, just more common perhaps. (Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely etc.)

    Dave are you saying that “Society” is the reified structure that emerges from natural social instincts of human beings?

    KVD[email protected]: Managed to miss that one… I know the lyrics to “Under the Sea” sung by the calypso lobster in The Little Mermaid though!

  14. Posted April 27, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    [email protected] asks: “Dave are you saying that “Society” is the reified structure that emerges from natural social instincts of human beings?”

    Well, kind of. Society? Culture? Civilization? Super-organism? Something like those. Stalin would have used “Motherland” among other things.

    Emergent, certainly, like “Aunt Ethel” in “Godel Escher Bach”, the ant colony that was friendly with the anteater – the colony capable of intelligence, the individual ants dumb.

    Is this reified whatever (structure sounds static) capable of being nice or nasty? I reckon so, the rip-your-beating-hearts-out cultures of the New World and the culture of fear under Stalin good examples of the nasty – the latter an example of how even an individual’s (im)moral acts can make a difference, sometimes. Stalin’s actions affected those unborn while he yet let.

    Do phenomena emerging from individuals adapt, compete, hybridize? Yes. Can competition winners be like cane toads? Yes. Can there be beauty from a culture, no just in sonatas and sculpture but in an atmosphere of loving modest solidarity that self-reinforces, produces it’s members rather than being purely the product of members? Yes – perhaps the Amish communities are an example.

    An act against society not an individual? Perhaps parking in a disabled car park when there are no disabled drivers who need it during that time. It means at least observers are more likely to be inconsiderate in the future – it adds a little more poison into the group, but doesn’t produce even a local temporary inconvenience to a single person.

    The “random acts of kindness”, on the other hand, the notion of PSR/Peronsal Social Responsibility (analogous to CSR) is, to me at least, an example where there is a tiny local benefit to an individual (well, two parties really), but the real beneficiary is society.

    Thus, I think zeroth law is a valid concept, overlapping with Kant’s rule, perhaps a “Platinum Rule”.

  15. Patrick
    Posted April 27, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I’m still with Lorenzo, just no idea what the first bit of [email protected] was on about.

    As for the misguided anti-Thatcher part, well I think it is misguided. Hilariously, it is misguided because it tries to asses the quoted remark as if it were an absolute philosophical proposition, bereft of all context.

    The context, as we all (including DB) know, is that the lefty of lore loves to invoke/hide behind ‘society’, this magic entity which is ‘supposed’ to ‘look after’ people.

    Thatcher was saying, simply, that when we invoke this mysterious being we invoke ourselves, our neighbours near and far, and that we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. We cannot and should not simply pretend that ‘society’ is an army of taxpayer-funded welfare programs. It is us and what we do, and whilst having an army of taxpayer-funded welfare programs may influence what we do (usually for the less, i.e. worse) it doesn’t change the fact that what we do makes us what we, and by extension the society we make up, is.

    I.e. if you want a heartless cold society create an entitlements state flush with rights devoid of obligations. As the say, the road to hell…

  16. Posted April 27, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Given the wholehearted disdain or fear of reified things like “society”, dare I mention “the economy” or “the market”? How many in Canberra would pooh-pooh the notions of crimes against humanity, corporate responsibility, yet cry about “economic terrorism”. Sacrifices on the altar of that reified entity are deemed as almost virtuous by many.

    And by the way, I’m /not/ denying the reality of “the economy”.

  17. Posted April 27, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I find the use of the term ‘the market’ generally extremely unhelpful. I don’t even like the term ‘free markets’ because it seems to me that markets are not the sort of things which have freedom and it encourages an unhelpful reification.

    It is fine to use the term ‘economy’ or ‘society’ as long as one remembers it is just shorthand. The trouble is, the terms we use have their own cognitive inertia. (Think of how often people say ‘China’ when what they really mean is the Beijing regime, which is not the same thing.)

  18. Posted April 27, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Permalink


    …that when we invoke this mysterious being we invoke ourselves, our neighbours near and far, and that we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. We cannot and should not simply pretend that ‘society’ is an army of taxpayer-funded welfare programs. It is us and what we do…

    The same goes when people use the ‘government’ as some sort of boogey man term, when really the ‘government’ is just us getting together to decide how we want to run things (at least in democratic societies).

    if you want a heartless cold society create an entitlements state flush with rights devoid of obligations.

    …like property rights?

  19. Posted April 27, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Only in Roman Law jurisdictions… for the common law you don’t have “dominium” and have to pay council tax.

    {goes away to bang head against wall until the random law falls out of it}

  20. Posted April 27, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] to “rights devoid of obligations” asked “like property rights” …

    Devoid of obligations bad. Limited liability good. Or so I’m told.

  21. Patrick
    Posted April 28, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    Ah, desipis, if only! You are right, of course, that with a slightly absurd abuse of language and meaning, there is ‘no such thing as government’, there are just people. You’ll be pleased to know that this manages to be both completely wrong and nonetheless identify the very heart of the problem!!

    It is of course completely wrong because there is such a thing as government, it has legal force and presence and endures beyond the transient individuals who staff it.

    Your misunderstanding is nonetheless perceptive, though, because the problem with Government is that is exactly not ‘us getting together to decide how we want to run things’, it is a group of individuals with their own agendas and interests doing that deciding and, much more importantly, a very large group of individuals with their own agendas and interests implementing such decisions.

    Hence, phenomena such as the perpetual expansion and eternal life of government departments and spending programs.

    PS: my challenge to the rest of you is to complete this thread without once more using the word ‘reified’ in any of its tenses. Please.

    PPS: DB, limited liability is not rights devoid of obligations. That is a category error, as you should be able to see.

    As I’ve partly said on this blog before re: limited liability: One of the biggest effects of limited liability is reducing the costs of investing. The whole friggin point is that without limited liability you and I could never afford to invest in anything because we would be taking the risk of going bankrupt each time, so we would have to conduct careful due diligence and be closely involved in supervising the business we had invested in.

    With limited liability we can simply buy a few shares and walk away comfortable in the knowledge that we are not going to lose anything more than what we invested. Limited liability broke the cycle where only the richest and most connected could afford to be rich, and in effect where only the aristocracy had the right to be rich.

    As usual, it is the 10th – 75th percentiles that benefit most overall (if, that is, one accepts diminishing marginal utility – I imagine that that box is checked in your case).

  22. Posted April 28, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink


    You won’t get any argument from me that government could be more open and democratic.

    it is a group of individuals with their own agendas and interests doing that deciding and, much more importantly, a very large group of individuals with their own agendas and interests implementing such decisions.

    But this sounds just like the way business (or really any human organisation) works to me.

    One of the biggest effects of limited liability is reducing the costs of investing. The whole friggin point is that without limited liability you and I could never afford to invest in anything because we would be taking the risk of going bankrupt each time…

    So government regulation to minimise the costs and risks of individuals to participate in the ‘economy’ is a good thing?


    The trouble is, the terms we use have their own cognitive inertia.

    But what is all language and culture other than “cognitive inertia”? It seems your concern is more about abuse of language or false iconification rather than ‘reification’.

  23. Patrick
    Posted April 28, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    1 – you failed my challenge at the first go. Please keep trying, we will all be the richer for it.
    2 – Regulation can be good, sure, provided especially that it just sets the parameters but not limits. Limited liability, for example, is a purely contractual idea, the regulatory construct is separate legal personality. LL is of course often fully vitiated through contract.
    3 –

    But this sounds just like the way business (or really any human organisation) works to me.

    Correct, and brilliant comment to boot. Now if all lefties could start thinking about government with the same healthy (or rabid, fine by me) scepticism with which they approach big business, the battle would be over!

    There is a critical difference of course, being that business can go out of business. The government, unfortunately, cannot and does not. Not the least friggin department, normally. Hence, a business is oriented towards meeting external needs because if they don’t they die, and the lefties here will not hesitate to tell me how they manage to feather their own nests handsomely along the way – just imagine the case for government, not subject to any tangible external pressure at all!

  24. Posted April 28, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I was specifically worried about shorthand labels having a life of their own. Since reification is treating abstract things as if they are concrete (or, at least, more concrete than they are) or an inanimate thing as if it were animate, it is a problem for ‘society’, ‘market’, etc. The example of China when the regime is meant is more simply being misled by the shorthand label. I am not sure I would call it abuse of language though.

    Cognitive inertia is necessary to have language, culture etc. It is not the problem in itself, just why shorthand terms can be problematic.

    (Such things are in my mind at the moment because I have become dissatisfied with the economist’s notion of money illusion, preferring to think of it as money inertia.)

  25. Posted April 28, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]

    Now if all lefties could start thinking about government with the same healthy (or rabid, fine by me) scepticism with which they approach big business, the battle would be over!

    Yes, one of the big cognitive gaps is precisely between those who think of government as just human organisation armed with coercive powers and those who think of politics as some inherently morally and cognitively superior realm.

    This is nicely expressed here

    money in politics are a result of the stakes that we have put on the table — the more power we give to government to reallocate wealth, the more money will be spent to have such decisions made in one’s favor.

    and in the post that post links to:

    Liberals view special interests as exogenous to the policy process. You have to overcome special interests to create good policy. Libertarians see special interests as endogenous. Policy is what creates them.

  26. Posted April 28, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink


    1 – Given the immediately preceding comments were directed at me, I didn’t take ‘the rest of you’ to include me. But I’ll do my best and await the check in the mail.
    2 – I don’t think explicit consensual LL through contract is all that bad, however being able to harm others and then hide behind a separate LL legal personality is problematic.
    3 – I agree, however wish that ‘righties’ would be as sceptical about about business as they are about government and not deify the ‘market’. (ps I’m neither a “lefty” nor a “righty”)

    Lorenzo, “special interests” are just the political equivalent to the big business “corporate elite” or “profiteering swindlers”. It doesn’t matter what system you have, there will be those who can twist others into acting against their own interests.

  27. Patrick
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Sorry, desipis, that last comment is a fail. Business is generally only able to ‘twist’ you into acting against your own interests by convincing you that you are not, government can do so by putting you in jail if you don’t. That’s a big freakin difference!

  28. Posted April 29, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink


    a) The comment was not about government generally but about ‘special interests’, which gain their power by convincing people to support their cause despite the cause not being in the best interests of the supporters.

    b) (Democratic) Governments only get the power to put people in jail if they convince people they ought to have that power.

    c) The fact that you’ve identified a difference in the ‘twisting’ mechanism doesn’t invalidate my comment. In fact I think it only serves to highlight that the different systems will perform differently depending on the circumstance and we should consider each on their merits within the particular circumstance and not draw general conclusions about the system either way.

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