Rationalizing “might makes right.”

I’ve already discussed the nature of the “might makes right” principle (MMR) in a previous entry, and why it is illusory.

Perhaps I need to repeat the point, so here it is. Force no more changes (or create, or destroy) human rights than voodoo incantations change (or create, or destroy) the laws of nature. MMR is nothing more than a rationalization of the use of force. A right cannot be punched or shot.

Now, I know that the term “right” in the expression “might makes right” does not mean the same thing as the concept of human rights, but the former entails the latter. Ethics (the rules regulating the activities of groups of human beings implementing specific values, precisely what we address when we say “human rights”) is contained within morality (the study and judgment of human activity in general). What we claim is right and wrong determines what we claim about the status of the human being in society. It should be obvious that a person who believes that might makes right is no supporter of human rights, since force is always, logically speaking, on the side of the oppressor.

Fundamentally, MMR is an epistemic statement. It tells us that we can distinguish right from wrong by examining the oppressor’s will. According to this principle, a murderer who kills his victim is morally justified, since he is stronger, and so is the State that executes him because he is infringing on the State’s exclusive right to kill. But this is a contradiction. The former action asserts the just nature of the initial murder (since the murderer’s might created the right), and the latter asserts the unjust nature of the initial murder (the State’s might creates the punishment as right, and thus the “crime” as wrong). Any system which leads to a direct contradiction is epistemically useless.

My main topic is this entry is not to rehash the arguments against MMR, but rather to examine the defenses put forward to prop up MMR. In my experience, there are three main defenses that people use, and I will go through them in turn.

1. We must obey authority.

This is the simplest one. Might may or may not make right, but we must obey might anyway, because obedience is a virtue.

I have already discussed the general issue of obedience and why it happens at a psychological level. Generally, though, there’s something more added to the mix, like a special pleading fallacy. It’s not all force we must obey (a foreign power’s military, for instance), but certain forms of force. It can be legitimate force (“people in uniforms are inherently good”), it can be democratic force (“whatever force people decide to support is good”), it can be hierarchical force (“anyone higher than you in a hierarchy can use force on you”), and so on.

But this only pushes the problem back. If the real issue is not that of force in general but of a specific kind of force, then the MMR proponent has introduced a new standard in the equation. We are no longer talking about “might makes right” but rather about “there is some specific kind of might that makes right.” So the question becomes: how do we know what is legitimate, democratic, hierarchical?

This inevitably entails some new ethical standard which will eventually either contradict MMR (because it entails that certain forms of might do not make right) or come out as being trivial (because it reduces itself to MMR). If what the person really believes in is an amended MMR, then he has to explain why he makes such an amendment, and why certain kinds of force have a different moral effect than other kinds of force.

(this includes self-defense, and thus may seem to go against my own position against aggression: but my moral position is not MMR to begin with, so the objection is irrelevant)

2. We have to be realists about this and accept the facts. We can’t fight against superior might, so we should obey it. (alternately: might can only be fought with a greater might, so become mighty)

This is a more sophisticated objection than the first one, but still pretty silly. There is nothing realistic about MMR. The concept that someone forcing others to do something makes that thing right is magical in nature. It is not right for me to mug an old lady and rob her of her valuables. Is this action therefore made right if I am forced to perform it under a vague and uncertain threat of retaliation, or just because it’s my job? Certainly not. If I was performing it under a direct deadly threat, then that would be another story, but very few hierarchical orders are of this nature.

One may reply that it is still true that we must obey. But the question of whether we should obey authority is a quite separate one from that of the validity of MMR; even if we must obey authority (an entirely debatable point in itself), it is not at all clear that this implies that MMR is true, since the former is an entirely personal decision while the latter is about society as a whole. The fact that I obey authority doesn’t mean I am right, and even if I am right, it doesn’t mean that I am doing something good for society as a whole.

To continue my analogy, I may conclude that I am justified in mugging an old lady and rob her, on the grounds that I will be subject to some retaliation if I don’t. But this does not therefore mean that mugging old ladies is good for society as a whole, and that the widespread mugging of old ladies is a desirable ethical goal.

As for the principle of fighting violence with violence, I have already written an entry exposing it as contradictory.

3. Moral nihilist version: There’s nothing else but might: moral judgments are made up and have no validity whatsoever.
Ethical nihilist version: There’s nothing else but might: human rights are made up and have no validity whatsoever.

I have separated both versions because the former is trivially easy to refute, while the latter is not. So let me first wipe out the moral nihilist position: if all moral judgments are made up, then so is MMR (which is a judgment about what makes right, therefore a moral judgment), and therefore MMR is false.

The ethical nihilist position is another matter, but it is easy to note at least one obvious fallacy, that of an argument from ignorance. The implicit reasoning is: since human rights are made up, then it must be the case that MMR is valid. But there are many other alternate ethics that one could endorse without resorting to MMR. Tucker’s position, to which I have referred to countless times on this blog, does not rely on rights (in fact, Tucker explicitly did not believe in rights at all), and is not at all like MMR. Similarly, Proudhon’s attacks against the concept of property and for the concept of possession, which he saw as a crucial ethical issue, are not based on rights or MMR.

The proponent of MMR therefore finds himself in the same situation as the Creationist: in denying one position (whether he can actually deny it successfully or not is another matter), he finds himself besieged by an ocean of possibilities. Dethroning a champion can only open the floodgates for every other contender out there. And MMR, ironically, is quite a weakling.

2 thoughts on “Rationalizing “might makes right.”

  1. David Z September 21, 2009 at 21:55

    I don’t always agree with you, Franc, but this is good stuff.

  2. Dr. Q September 22, 2009 at 10:57

    I’m a bit of a noob to Tucker. When I read State Socialism and Anarchism, I was given the impression that he believed in some form of natural rights, but I’ve heard he radically switched his position near the end of his life. Can you point me to some of the entries wherein you mention this position?

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