USS Clueless - Reciprocity and Self Reliance

Stardate 20030111.1342

(Captain's log): In response to my post yesterday celebrating a 74-year-old man who could only move with a walker, who nonetheless defended his store against armed robbers, I received the following letter from Andrew:

You wrote, "The sad thing is that there are people in Europe who are in jail now because they did what Adams did."

No, the sad thing is that Americans cheer when a person dies. Punishment should be proportional, death is not such. The reason we consider Arabs to be less civilized than us is because they stone women for adultery. But how civilized are Americans when they shoot people for robbery?

Yes, this guy defended his property and probably the life of his employee. HOWEVER, property is worse less than a life and I would rather see someone walk away with what is mine than have his life on my conscience.

And I certainly wouldn't be cheering over a death.

"No need to let something like that live."

This is exactly the attitude I dislike about Arab fundamentalists and I am not going to cherish it when one of my own people holds it. It's opinions, not nationalities that I care about.

No human being is a "thing" and there is no question whether there is a "need" to let someone live or not.

Steven, I found that entry of yours very disappointing. Advocating a right to own guns is one thing, cheering about the abuse of one (and killing people IS an abuse of gun ownership, regardless of what the "thing" one killed did or wanted to do) is quite another.

Did the old man have another option? He certainly did. He could have let the robber walk. Using "overall happiness" as a goal, the calculation is easy:

h(robber with stolen goods) + h(old man with his goods stolen) > 0 + h(old man with his goods not stolen)

The "0" meaning that h(robber) doesn't exist any more.

Could it be that your patriotism overshadowed your belief in utilitarianism?

It's amazing how many people recently have started to toss relatively naive utilitarian arguments my way, especially given my own arguments that pure utilitarianism is deeply flawed.

Among the many flaws of utilitarianism is that it doesn't concern itself with scaling problems. Andrew's calculation is a pretty good example of how localized utilitarianism works, and clearly demonstrates one of its flaws, which is that it pays no attention to secondary effects in the long term.

For instance, the same argument could be made that putting the robber in prison makes him miserable, and thus we can optimize human happiness by not punishing criminals. Of course, the problem with that is that it means you'll get more crime.

I would like to make clear that I'm not cheering because one of the robbers died. I'm cheering because an old man who couldn't even walk unassisted was willing to stand up for what was his own; I'd have been just as pleased, and for exactly the same reasons, if he'd fired at the robbers and missed and they'd fled the store unharmed.

But having said that, I will confess that I feel no sense of loss for the guy who died and no sympathy for the one who was wounded.

I'm not a utilitarian. I'm also not a rule utilitarian, but I find it to be somewhat less flawed than pure utilitarianism (and its flaws to be in other places) and it generally provides somewhat better guidance. The main difference is that rule utilitarianism causes you to broaden your focus and to consider the global effects which would take place if many people acted as you do, which means it is far less susceptible to things like the tragedy of the commons and the free rider problem.

One thing I find, as a broad principle, is that I feel much less obligation to act in a principled manner with those who are themselves unprincipled. And in particular, I feel no obligation to act in a principled way with someone who is deliberately trying to use my principles against me.

To take a minor example of that, as a matter of common courtesy I'm not in the habit of interrupting people when they talk. It does come up, but it's not something I do very often, because it's rude. But I have no compunction about interrupting telemarketers when they call, because they will deliver their pitch nonstop. They're trying to take advantage of me; they're trying to use my common courtesy, my unwillingness to interrupt them or outright hang up on them, as a way of forcing me to listen to a message I have no interest in hearing. Thus I will interrupt them and feel no twinge of guilt.

The basic idea is that I apply my principles strongly to dealings with other people who follow principles, but only weakly or not at all with those who do not. It could be argued that this is immoral, and some do so. They claim that my acts should always be ethical unrelated to who I'm dealing with.

But this ignores the global problem of spoiling the commons and free riding. If people know they can break the rules and get away with it, then you'll get a lot of that. On the other hand, if people know that they'll only be treated well if they themselves treat others well, then there's an incentive to do so. By my unwillingness to be magnanimous to jerks, I encourage them to act ethically and cease being jerks. Being magnanimous to jerks isn't moral; it's just being a sucker. It lets them take advantage of you, to your detriment and the detriment of nearly everyone else. If you're nice to jerks, you get more jerks.

That's the basis for Mead's observation of how Jacksonians feel about clean and dirty war:

Jacksonian America has clear ideas about how wars should be fought, how enemies should be treated, and what should happen when the wars are over. It recognizes two kinds of enemies and two kinds of fighting: honorable enemies fight a clean fight and are entitled to be opposed in the same way; dishonorable enemies fight dirty wars and in that case all rules are off.

An honorable enemy is one who declares war before beginning combat; fights according to recognized rules of war, honoring such traditions as the flag of truce; treats civilians in occupied territory with due consideration; andóa crucial pointórefrains from the mistreatment of prisoners of war. Those who surrender should be treated with generosity. Adversaries who honor the code will benefit from its protections, while those who want a dirty fight will get one.

It's also a generalized application of the concept behind Tit-for-Tat. In this context I'd refer to it as reciprocity: I'll treat you the way you treat me. Irrespective of whether this might seem to cause localized evil, the global effect is to encourage virtue.

Do I value human life? Yes, though not all lives equally. Do others value human life? It's provable that some don't. So I will in general consider the value of someone else's life as being a function of how much he seems to think that the lives of those around him are worth. If he seems to feel that the lives of others are worthless, then I feel completely comfortable with the idea that his own life should not be treated as being of very great value.

In that I'm critically different than the Arab fundamentalists, who have decided that my life is worthless no matter what I do. They think I'm worthless because of what I am. What I say is that other people's lives are worth a lot or a little based on what they do. They have a choice, and I'll abide by that choice.

Most states in the Union have laws about what is usually called felony murder. What that means is that if you commit any of a large number of highly violent crimes and if as a result of that someone dies, then even if you were not directly the killer you are still subject for punishment under the murder laws. How serious the punishment is varies; in most cases it's treated as second degree murder but in some cases it's treated as first degree, and people have been executed for it. If, for instance, you lead the cops in a high-speed car chase, and if the cop who's chasing you loses control and crashes and you get away, and if someone dies in that car crash, then if they catch you you'll be charged with murder.

And I agree with that law. When someone engages in the kinds of crimes for which felony murder applies (which means things like armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, felonious assault, resisting arrest) then it means that the felon has himself abandoned any significant concern about the wellbeing of his fellow citizens. When someone commits armed robbery, and points a gun at a store clerk, he's clearly decided that the clerk's life is worth less than the $200 in the cash register, and as far as I'm concerned it means that the felon's life is also no longer worth any more than that. It's his choice; I'll abide by it.

So while I don't celebrate the death of that man yesterday, I also don't mourn him. He made his choice, and he has died because of that choice. He died for a trivial cause because he was willing to kill for a trivial gain. And his brother who survived wounded will have to live with that choice, because he's almost certainly going to be charged with murder for the death of his brother. And he'll deserve it, too.

I think that reciprocity is important. The other principle involved is that of self-reliance, and it's at least as important. Should we rely on ourselves or on the power of the state? Well, both, actually; there's a place for each. But one of the deep philosophical disagreements between Europe and the US now is where the dividing line between those should be. Europe feels that citizens should rely strongly on the state; in the US we lean much more towards self reliance. That manifests in issues such as the kind and amount of socialist spending by the state on social safety nets, and the amount of government regulation which is placed on businesses. It also manifests strongly here with respect to the idea of self defense.

I do not advocate vigilantism. As a general rule, kangaroo courts and lynch mobs do more harm than good. But when individual citizens not only lay quietly and wait for the police to save them, but are actively punished for doing anything else, then the overall result is a rise in crime. That's why we generally have exceptions to the laws about murder which spell out when it's considered "justified" and thus not punishable. For instance, in the California penal code, which is typical, it's spelled out this way:

197. Homicide is also justifiable when committed by any person in any of the following cases:
   1. When resisting any attempt to murder any person, or to commit a felony, or to do some great bodily injury upon any person; or,
   2. When committed in defense of habitation, property, or person, against one who manifestly intends or endeavors, by violence or surprise, to commit a felony, or against one who manifestly intends and endeavors, in a violent, riotous or tumultuous manner, to enter the habitation of another for the purpose of offering violence to any person therein; or,
   3. When committed in the lawful defense of such person, or of a wife or husband, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant of such person, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony or to do some great bodily injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished; but such person, or the person in whose behalf the defense was made, if he was the assailant or engaged in mutual combat, must really and in good faith have endeavored to decline any further struggle before the homicide was committed; or,
   4. When necessarily committed in attempting, by lawful ways and means, to apprehend any person for any felony committed, or in lawfully suppressing any riot, or in lawfully keeping and preserving the peace.

To some extent this is an extension of the entire concept behind the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment explicitly recognizes that the ultimate military defense for this nation is an armed citizenry. Section 197 of the California Legal Code recognizes that in extreme cases civilians will also become involved in preventing serious crimes, or in apprehending those who have just committed serious crimes. While it would be nice if there were a policeman on every corner who could respond within seconds to such situations, that isn't realistic and sometimes you can't afford to wait.

In this case, a robber died and no innocent was harmed. But it could just as easily have gone the other way, and quite frankly I think that would have been a far greater tragedy. I do not value the life of the robber as equal to that of the clerk at the time of the crime. We obviously can't know for sure, but Adams may well have prevented such a thing from happening. It was the decision of the robbers to put lives at risk when they decided to point guns at people. Adams decided who would pay for that, but responsibility for that ultimately rests with the guys who decided to commit the robbery.

I think that an activist citizenry, one which is engaged, one where individuals feel a bond to their fellow citizens and are willing to defend them and to make sacrifices for them, is greatly to be preferred to one which is passive and unmotivated and fearful.

That was what moved the passengers of Flight 93. They didn't sit passively; they fought back. Because they did, their jet crashed into an open field instead of into something large and important on the ground full of people.

So what do you get when you punish people who are actually willing to do that for their fellow citizens? A couple of things.

One thing you get is a lot more crime of that kind. Even criminals are making something like a cost-benefit analysis when they decide whether to commit crimes, and if you reduce the potential cost, then crime becomes more attractive.

But there's something deeper, something more subtle and far more damaging: you begin to destroy the basic camaraderie and commitment among citizens which I feel is essential for a successful civil society. You erode the idea that we're all in this together.

You teach people that it's wrong to care. You tell them that the right course of action is to "not get involved". When they see a crime being committed, then if they try to stop it they may end up in prison, but there's no punishment for looking the other direction and not seeing. And thus fewer people will get involved.

I don't want to live in a society like that. I don't want to live in a society where the Kitty Genovese case is not only not considered newsworthy but is actually considered an example of civil virtue.

I remember when Kitty Genovese was murdered. I was ten years old. My parents told me about it, and they were aghast as were all the other people around me. And I vowed that I would never turn away from such a situation. I still feel that way.

I have never faced an actual situation that dire, but I have gotten involved in a case of lesser severity in order to defend someone I had never met before, and have never seen since. I'm not going to go into details, and I don't claim to be a hero. I just know that I could never look at myself in the mirror again if I witnessed such a case and didn't get involved.

And I won't passively let someone victimize me. I don't own a gun, but I'm willing to fight. I've never been in a fight, and in the two cases where someone actually tried to pick a fight with me I defused the situation without violence, but if someone actually throws a punch at me, then at least one of us will go to the hospital and I'll do my best to make sure it's him.

I honestly believe that nearly everyone would benefit from a study of martial arts. You learn discipline from it. You also learn not to be a bully, because you learn that no matter how good you are, there's someone out there who's better and eventually you'll run into him.

But you also learn a quiet confidence. It gives you a kind of poise, a dampening of fear, a knowledge that you are not helpless. When most of the people in a nation have that kind of feeling, it's a better place than if most of the people feel helpless and alone and passive and victimized. You learn from martial arts that you're not a chip of wood being tossed on the waves; you're a ship with a tiller which can maneuver and control its own destiny.

The overall benefit of that to a society and the people who live in it far outweighs the localized tragedy of an armed robber, who has decided that the lives of those around him are worthless, dying during his attempt to rob someone. Everything has a price, and that's the price we pay for deciding that we Americans would rather defend ourselves and not be victims. And that price is paid disproportionately by those who most deserve it, since armed robbers die by gunshot at a much higher rate than those in the general population.

And it's also the case that a law-abiding citizen in London now is in more danger from armed assault than a citizen of NYC or Dallas or Atlanta.

And a cultural decision about whether citizens should be men or mice will also manifest in foreign policy. The US didn't choose this war. We were attacked first. But now that we have been attacked, we're going to do what's necessary to make sure it doesn't happen again any more times than is absolutely unavoidable. We didn't decide that there would be a war; that was decided by those who made the plans for the attacks in NYC and Washington. Our only choice is where it will be fought, and how, and who will do the fighting.

Europe wants us to act as a passive and fearful citizen of the world, and to wait for the world's policemen to save us. They want us to absorb our damage and not fight back, and we aren't doing so. America is self-reliant. As individuals and as a group we won't stand passively and let others attack us. We'll defend ourselves; we won't sit and hope someone else takes care of it.

Adams represents the finest strain of America in his act yesterday, and I'm deeply proud of him. For all I know he may well be vile in other ways, but at the deepest level he demonstrated a nobility I'm glad to see. I feel not the slightest twinge of shame in saying that. Yesterday I said this:

Our overseas friends would do well to contemplate this example. What's remarkable about Adams is that he isn't remarkable. There are millions of Americans who would do exactly the same thing in the same circumstances. We don't give up what's ours just because someone else demands it, whether at gunpoint, or via crashed jetliners, or through diplomatic denunciations and accusations of unilateralism.

I want to emphasize this. If you don't understand why Americans are willing to act like this, and why we're proud to act like this, and why we are not going to stop acting like this, then you'll never understand anything we do and your international rhetoric will continue to be ineffective. This taps into the deepest strain of our character.

You're not going to get anywhere by treating this as cultural pathology. We think it's healthy, and quite frankly we've got good reason to believe that. You had better learn about this, and accept it as an essential part of the American character, and deal with it in your diplomacy. The only thing you're going to accomplish by trying to shame us about this is to alienate us, because we're not going to change.

Which has been the actual result since September of 2001, as the politicians and chattering heads of Europe have indeed been attempting to make us ashamed of this attitude. Americans are not interested in hearing "Let the attackers beat you up and kill you; sit passively and let the police take care of it." We're also not interested in hearing "Let the terrorists kill you; sit passively and let the UN take care of it." The only thing this has done is to increasingly convince us that Europe's chatterers are effete cowards.

Everything which is truly important is worth fighting to defend.

Update: This expresses it well:

Update 20030112: Connie du Toit comments.

Further discussion by me here.

Update: Scott points out how a store owner in Oklahoma was shot in the head and died, leaving behind a wife and a young son. The idea that all you have to do is not resist and give them the money isn't really good enough.

Capitalist Lion comments.

Update 20030113: Swen Swenson comments.

Update 20030114: Kim du Toit comments.

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