I’ve debunked voluntaryism before, but this is more of a general complain which seems to be used against all ideologies which have an ethical component. Any attempt to stop something that is clearly wrong, no matter what it is, will be met with cries of “you’re just a big bully” and “you just want to tell people what they can and cannot do!”
Yet, as I pointed out in my entry debunking voluntaryism, we most definitely do want to tell people what they cannot do. Obviously we want to tell people that they can’t kill other people unless it’s self-defense. Obviously we want to tell people that they can’t propagate hatred against other people because they have a different race or gender. Obviously we want to tell people that they can’t exploit others for profit. Anyone who denies that it is in our interest to tell people what they can’t do is plainly deluding emself. You don’t need to be a dictatorial personality to realize that there are things you don’t want people to do to you.
The basic principle behind whether we should tell people not to do something or not is this:
When your actions hurt other people, choice goes out the window.
If we are to live in society, then people’s free agency will necessarily come into conflict. In any such conflict, we must necessarily take the side of the person whose free agency is being restricted by the other person’s. We take the side of the murder victim, not the murderer. We take the side of the person discriminated against, not the racist or sexist. We take the side of the exploited, not the exploiter. Again, anyone who disagrees on these points is deluding emself.
Now, we must introduce the concept of causal distance between the action and the hurt. Shooting someone is proximal to the fact that they are in need of medical help. But the act of perpetuating racism is not proximal to a black person getting arrested without justification or not getting a job because of eir race, and the act of perpetuating sexism is not proximal to a woman being raped.
This provides a cognitive gap that voluntaryists and other opponents can exploit (much like natalists try to exploit the gap between conception and birth as an argument against the rights of future people). By separating the act from its context (such as the indoctrination that led to it, the institutions that support it and benefit from it, and the rationalizations used to justify it), they can make the act itself seem innocuous while supporting hierarchies and stratification by the back door.
The cleavage of action from its context, considering actions in a vacuum, is the mark of voluntaryist reasoning. This is why voluntaryists are so good at identifying presently-occuring coercion but so horrible at identifying the coercion embodied in actions and institutions.
Here is an example taken from an anti-abortion questionnaire featured in an upcoming entry of mine:
[I]t is false to say that, in our society, pro-life people are free to live in accordance with their conviction that unborn children are precious and have dignity.
If you grant, then, that, if you were pro-life, you might very well try to stop abortions, say, by sidewalk counseling, or pickets, or even rescues, then you must admit that these activities are part of the pro-life view, and, if you hold, furthermore, that both pro-life and pro-choice views should be allowed, shouldn’t you oppose any restrictions on these sorts of pro-life activities?
The clear implication of this question is that, because some people choose to be anti-abortion, their choice should be respected on the same level as someone who chooses to be pro-choice or pro-abortion, and we should let them perform the perverted acts they wish to perform, such as pickets, sidewalk “counseling” or “rescues” (the latter being, in addition to being wrong, also illegal, from what I understand).
The underlying belief that people should be “free to live in accordance with their conviction” is false. When your “convictions” involve hurting other people, they are wrong and should be suppressed, not encouraged. They are sick in the head. Sidewalk “counseling” and “rescues” are actions which entail harm to the women who are trapped in their rhetoric and physical intimidation, and ultimately entail the creation of massive harm through reproduction. Their actions hurt other people, so choice is no longer an acceptable excuse.
Here is another example from a recent comment on this blog:
[M]aybe you can tell me how [the burqa], distinct from external religious mandate, interferes with the choice of others? If a woman chooses to wear a burqa for her own reasons, how is she interfering with the choices of others? If she’s forced to wear it by religious (or other) authorities, then *her* choice is being interfered with. But if she chooses, then whose choice is being interfered with?
Here we see a person clearly interpreting actions in a vacuum. The burqa exists within a religious mandate and solely because of that mandate, and cannot be discussed as if it is purely the result of choice. Fundamentally, no woman wears a burqa out of choice, and if the religious mandate did not exist, no woman would wear a burqa. The best proof of this is that women who are not raised in the Islamic sexist mentality do not choose to wear burqas. Well, what an incredible coincidence, no?
The fact is that the imposition of the burqa is a sexist act both inherently (because it is explicitly based on profound and offensive sexism) and in practice (because it displays women as objects, in the most literal way). And sexism hurts everyone. No one is spared from it, although women bear the brunt of this harm.
Voluntaryists can try to hide that fact by dissociating the act from its context. The individual woman wearing a burqa, they say, is not aggressing on anyone. That much is true, but the sexism which she is supporting by her actions does aggress on others. For Anarchists to preach the end of racism while ignoring the causes of racism is as deluded as pro-war protestors proposing the State as the solution (given the fact that the State is the root cause) or environmentalists who fight against antinatalism (given the fact that just having one child destroys many times over any good you may do by reducing your carbon footprint). The only way to progress on any problem or issue is to deal with its underlying causes.
Here is another comment from the same person:
Marriage is the same thing. There are statist rules that benefit married couples specifically. Banning marriage (as an expression of pair-bonding which has existed for millenia, in various forms) is telling people what they can or can’t do because you’ve fooled yourself into thinking you know better than they… you’re taking the same basic position as a statist, by declaring you know how people should live and dictating the norms they should conform to.
The “you want to tell people what to do” fallacy is easily paired with the “I know what’s best for people” fallacy, as in this case. Here we are told that attacking stratification is wrong because we’re “dictating the norms [people] should conform to.” But again, this is wrong-headed: if we are against stratification, we must look at its causes. And eliminating an institution which serves the sole purpose of stratifying society can’t be a bad thing. The fact that people choose to participate in this institution (a questionable premise in itself) does not prove that it is right.
A quote from a capitalist this time:
Would you oppose usury if both parties accepted it voluntarily AND had the choice to choose otherwise?
Again, if we take the hypothetical as realistic, this is looking at the act disconnected from context. Usury may be “voluntary,” but we don’t have “the choice to choose otherwise.” If we did, no one would choose usury over fair treatment.
But most importantly, usury is wrong regardless of people’s choices. Whether people support or oppose usury doesn’t change the fact that it is economic parasitism, getting money for no work, solely because one owns capital and others do not. But capitalism is entirely founded on subjectivity, so they must accept subjectivity in ethics as well. Nothing can be done about it. To reject subjectivity in ethics would mean to contradict the very foundation of capitalist thought (the Subjective Theory of Value).
Here’s another capitalist example:
I form a hierarchical organization, YOU come and FORCE me to stop it (even if all those within it entirely agree with me), and I am the one in opposition to freedom? Last I checked, it was you stopping me from making my own decisions that was contrary to freedom. What, you need to stop people from oppressing themselves? That sounds like the motivation of a fascist.
Here the scenario is abstracted by talking about “I” and “you.” In real life, people who form hierarchical organizations and run them are people like CEOs, warlords, cult leaders… hardly the kind of people we’re going to identify with. In all cases, we’re talking about massive exploitation and a certain amount of harm added to the world, from very slight to massive. Now the scenario is completely different. we’re no longer “stop[ping] people from oppressing themselves.” We’re stopping the “I” in this situation (the hierarchy-starter) from exploiting, oppressing and harming other people. We are removing a source of unfreedom from the world. And that is a righteous cause indeed.
To a certain extent, some of these examples of rhetoric rely on abstraction to make them palatable. The anti-abortion example abstracts the actual nature of the acts committed, and their consequences. The marriage example abstracts away the people who are made second-class citizens because they are not married. The last example of course abstracts the nature of the actors involved. The other two examples set up hypotheticals disconnected from reality, such as women who wear burqas of their own free will, and people who participate in usurious transactions even though they could choose otherwise.
Do we tell people what to do? No, not at all. We should aim to tell people what not to do. What people do is their own business. But having a healthy functioning society demands that we try to stop people from hurting each other, be it directly (through acts of violence, threats of violence, or hierarchical control) or indirectly (through acts of racism, sexism, and other forms of hatred). When confronted by conflicts of values, we must always side with the victims. We must never take the side of the aggressor.