Unto Them On The Left Hand

In 2006, Dr. John Lancor wrote, “The minimum criterion necessary to enforce any behavioral system is that it should require less strength to enforce upon others than the strength of those it is enforced upon. By induction, this allows a single person advantaged by that system to maintain its grip upon the entirety of the population.

“Only those who participate in them derive value from crime, atrocity, and waste. For this reason, it is evident that every extravagance, every waste, every sin, and every horror—every crime not justified by enlightened self-interest—is and must be balanced and sustained by someone, in some place, choosing without coercion to sacrifice themselves for the common good. Otherwise the equation would not balance, and social enforcement of the prevailing system would not be possible. To say that people are evil or drawn to sin is missing a fundamental truth: the atrocities we hear of every day are made possible only by humanity’s elemental quality of good. A society of monsters would also be a rational society; even the richest and most powerful would scarcely be able to waste, and only insofar as society recognized that the abstract value of their contribution required reward to sustain it.”

In 2008, Dr. John Lancor took certain actions in accordance with his philosophy.

It is 2027.

The creature walks into the center of the town.

It is raining. The buildings are crude but strong. The streets are cobblestone and dirt. The people who stare at the creature are nourished but unhappy and their faces show the marks of disease.

The creature should be dead. But it is not.

“Help is necessary,” it says. “The doctor has fallen. He has broken his leg. Help is necessary.”

There is a small boychild on the street. His hair is black. He walks up to the creature. He pokes it with a finger.

“You’re not dead,” says the boy.

“From the parts of the dead,” says the creature. “From the parts of the dead I came. But life was added.”

The boy tugs at the creature’s arm. He pokes at its leg. Then he picks up a rock from the street and hits the creature’s leg with it. He looks dissatisfied.

“Why?” asks the boy.

“To love him,” says the creature. “To love the doctor.”

The boy walks around the creature. He is fascinated. “That’s stupid,” he says. “There isn’t any love.”

The creature tilts its head to one side.

“The history books say that it stopped in 2008,” lectures the boy. “That other people stopped being valuable then. That’s why nobody but me matters. The thing they had that would have made me care went away.”

“The doctor needs help,” says the creature. “He will die in misery.”

“Everyone does. You will. I will,” the boy says. He mimics the creature, his head canting to one side. “Could you care about me? I still matter.”

“I’m sorry,” the creature says.

The boy frowns.

“You have not fallen and broken your leg,” says the creature. “You are not alone and cold on the mountain. Why shall you die in misery?”

The boy bends down. He plucks a flower from the ground. He holds it out to the creature.

“Nobody knows that I matter,” says the boy matter-of-factly. “That there’s still someone left who does. So my life and education’s worth it to people, but nobody’s gonna spend resources to keep someone from living and dying in misery.”

The creature takes the flower. It looks at it.

“Like that,” says the boy. “It was screaming when I pulled it up. It tried really hard to tell me it was important. It showed its inner beauty, and asked that it survive one more day. And then I pulled it up to let it die slowly in the air. And you watched and thought it was okay. That’s what’ll happen to me, one day. Both of us. And to the doctor.”

The flower falls from the creature’s hands.

“You could care about me,” the boy suggests persuasively. “I mean, since you’re into that kind of thing. Not the doctor. Me.”

The creature looks up. “But I love him,” it says.

Its words carry. There is a ringing in the air after each word.

“I love him, and I do not want him to die like this.”

It is too loud, the creature realizes. It is too loud and it is too honest.

“Oh,” says the boy.

It was at once too loud and too honest, and there is now a low noise. It seems to be coming from everyone in the town at once. It has envy in it and anger and a terrible desolation. And it is like the rising sound of bees.

“I will go,” says the creature. There is a certain fear in it. “I will go. I will give him such comfort as I can.”

The sound is rising. The creature is backing away, but it is not yet running.

“Only blankets,” says the creature. “Only something to keep away the cold.”

It is not magic that moves the people of the town. It is not emptiness. It is simply the thought that someone should have this, when they cannot.

“Stupid histories,” says the boy. “They were lying. Weren’t they?”

He slumps away.

“It figures,” says the boy.

There are pitchforks and torches in the hands of the townsfolk, and the creature is afraid.

“And if the world were hollow,” wrote Dr. John Lancor, “and but a single soul in it both innocent and good, then there should be a price paid in sorrow for that innocence—a price growing from that innocence like from a grain of sand a pearl. How it should happen I do not know; but the mathematics are inevitable.”

There is fire and there is blood, and it is regrettable that the doctor cannot see it, for he would find the matter of a certain scientific interest.

9 thoughts on “Unto Them On The Left Hand

  1. I find the Dr. Lancor’s argument problematic. It appears to rest on the assumption that crime, atrocity and waste are purely destructive acts — that they lack any positive consequences.

    Consider, however, the possible consequences of theft from the very rich by the very poor. If a guy sleeping under a bridge were to steal a million dollars from a billionaire, he would most likely spend it. That money, got though selfish crime, would act as economic stimulus to the local economy. Many innocents would benefit from the crime. There has been no selfless act, and yet there is a net gain.

    Atrocity can be considered in similar manner. Enforced slavery produces significant economic benefits. It could be argued that the North benefited more from American slavery than the south did, because it allowed them to pay lower prices for raw materials (such as cotton) which they then turned into manufactured goods and sold at an enormous profit to the South. Thus, atrocity can benefit those who do not directly participate without any selfless act.

    The point is not to endorse bad behavior. Theft and slavery are wrong, independent of their wider consequences.

    The point is that equation does not have to balance. The game is not zero-sum. The system is not closed. Thus, selfishness is not made possible by altruism, nor does altruism require a selfish act elsewhere.

    Still, I really enjoyed the post.

  2. Atrocity can be considered in similar manner. Enforced slavery produces significant economic benefits. It could be argued that the North benefited more from American slavery than the south did, because it allowed them to pay lower prices for raw materials (such as cotton) which they then turned into manufactured goods and sold at an enormous profit to the South. Thus, atrocity can benefit those who do not directly participate without any selfless act.

    Buying goods created with slave labor is direct participation. Unwillingness to look beyond the immediate is the cause of much evil.

    Also, from an economic perspective, there are lots of goods that can’t be produced and sold at prices which return a profit. Flying cars come to mind. This does not mean that there would be economic benefits to producing those with slaves.

    The point is not to endorse bad behavior. Theft and slavery are wrong, independent of their wider consequences.

    Consequentialists have a perfectly acceptable account of what’s wrong with slavery. I’ll grant that the case of a poor man stealing from a rich man is a little tougher, but then, it’s tougher for our intuition too — Robin Hood and Vel Jean are heroes in our culture. We can spend a lot of ink talking about the deadweight loss of policing, and questioning why the guy is living under the bridge in the first place, but I think you’ll find that with a non-consequentialist view, you end up biting a lot of bullets on cases like that.

    To get back on topic a bit, I think the point of this Hitherby is to attack Ayn Rand. And any attack on Ayn Rand is good with me.

  3. Buying goods created with slave labor is direct participation. Unwillingness to look beyond the immediate is the cause of much evil.

    Given reasonable alternatives and proper labeling, I can see an argument for this statement. But at the time, those things were not available. If you wanted cotton cloth in America in 1840, the chances were very good that slaves picked the cotton. But you had no way of knowing, so no way of making an informed choice.

    In fact, if you really wanted to avoid benefiting from slave labor, you would have to isolate yourself entirely from the rest of the world’s economy. After all, if you don’t buy slave-cotton, but your baker does, and charges less for bread because his shirt cost him less, then you benefit from slave labor. So short of living as a hermit in the hills (or maybe a closed commune of like-minded people), you would not have been able to help it.

    Even then, you need land to start your commune/hermitage. If you can’t create that land from nothing, then you must purchase it from the market. But the state of the real estate market will be altered by the existence of slavery. So even then, you cannot escape indirect participation.

    So no, buying goods made with slave labor is not direct participation. It is indirect participation. The degree of indirection may or may not be something that one can control.

    As another example, many atrocities were committed by European settlers and later European-Americans on the Native American population. The land and stability gains for the USA were significant. I would venture to say that everything this country produces today benefits from those atrocities, including scientific research.

    But there exist people today in remote countries who benefit from medical research performed in this country. Should Africans turn down malaria treatments, because at some point they benefited from atrocities against Native Americans? Does failure to do so make them participants in said atrocities? What if said African has never heard of the atrocities we committed early in our history? Does that make a difference?

    Also, from an economic perspective, there are lots of goods that can’t be produced and sold at prices which return a profit. Flying cars come to mind. This does not mean that there would be economic benefits to producing those with slaves.

    I would imagine that flying cars would be very profitable if the total cost of their development and production were reduced to the raw materials and necessary calories. But this is irrelevant. The good doctor asserted that only those who participate in atrocity benefit from it. One counterexample is sufficient; I need not show that for all atrocities, those not directly involved benefit.

    As for Ayn Rand, I have not read her.

    Lancor’s hidden premise is that there is no weakness but intentional weakness.

    I have no clue what you’re talking about, but it sounds interesting. Please elaborate?

  4. [quote=”Mithrandir”“>

    In fact, if you really wanted to avoid benefiting from slave labor, you would have to isolate yourself entirely from the rest of the world’s economy. After all, if you don’t buy slave-cotton, but your baker does, and charges less for bread because his shirt cost him less, then you benefit from slave labor.

    There’s a threshold beyond which you cannot be expected to know, or to act. But in the 1840s, everyone knew how cotton was harvested. A direct boycott of goods which are almost certainly actually made with slave labor is well inside the threshold.

    As for the rest, it’ll have to be after the Changeling game I’m now late for :)

  5. There’s a threshold beyond which you cannot be expected to know, or to act. But in the 1840s, everyone knew how cotton was harvested. A direct boycott of goods which are almost certainly actually made with slave labor is well inside the threshold.

    I’m not certain that boycotts had been done in 1840. Wikipedia traces the word itself to 1880, so I imagine the practice was not widespread before then.

    Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” was published in 1849. It was rather groundbreaking, and so I would argue that the people of the 1840s could not be expected to boycott cotton in protest of slavery. It was not a tool they had.

    Assuming the existance of an organized boycott of cotton in the 1840s, would you argue that in order to not be a participant in slavery, one would have to participate in such a boycott? I can see that, especially if there was a reasonable expectation of bringing about the end of slavery.

    I think political support of the anti-slavery movement would have been enough. I don’t think economic sanctions at hardship would have been necessary. Though, it might have been a better solution in hindsight: the civil war was pretty nasty.

    Now, assuming the non-existance of an organized boycott on cotton, what would be both necessary and sufficient to make yourself a non-participant (morally speaking) in slavery?

  6. Apparently, boycotts had been invented.

    And free blacks urged precisely that.

    As an aside, I think the strongest critique of modern capitalism is that it encourages complicity in all sorts of evils.

    Boycotts are a fairly typical collective action problem. Nobody wants to start, because it entails a sacrifice without an immediate political gain. When we talk of organized movements, which are likely to be successful, we forget that those movements start with a single act.

    Re: Lancor’s hidden premise, I mean that he thinks that bad people do things to people because those people in some sense permit it, or pass on the harm to people who ultimately permit it out of altruism. This is, of course, nonsense — sometimes, people “permit” bad things to be done to them because they are not strong enough to resist. This is a caricature of Ayn Rand’s views that we are al “heroic” individuals, who should live only for ourselves (see Wikipedia on Objectivism) for details.

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