The Earl of passive-aggressive drunkenness

March 22, 2017 § 21 Comments

Sometimes folks get lost in abstract discussions, and it becomes helpful to season it with little storytelling to help get a point across. This seems especially true when it comes to grasping the implications-in-context of incoherent ideas; doubly so in the case of the cherished ideal of political liberty, that is, the doctrine that protecting and advancing freedom is what justifies the exercise of authority.  Against the charge of incoherence it is sometimes countered that liberalism is not self-contradictory because (e.g.) expressly permitting abortion or public drunkenness or prostitution or gay sex parades or murder of the unfit or mass rape of young white girls by vibrant immigrants is merely passive: these are not active exercises of authority, and therefore do not discriminate, etc.  Rights, it is claimed, are simply a passive recognition by the sovereign and in no way involve the sovereign in acts.

This is, of course, a load of malarkey.  Whenever an authority chooses a course of action – any course of action – on a particular controvertible or actually controverted case this is always, necessarily, and without exception, an imposition of discriminating authority. There is no such thing as a “passive act”, in general.  Even choices which appear “permissive” from some narrow point of view or other are permissive only relatively speaking not in some general sense: permitting trespassers to overrun an owner’s property without consequences does not permit the owner to enjoy his property free of trespassers, and permitting mothers to murder their children in the womb without consequence fails to permit those murdered unborn children to be born and grow up.  Every single express permission granted by an authority implies numerous restrictions, always and without exception[1].

Suppose that I am the Earl of Meadistrad, and the issue of public drunkenness is brought before me because Rollo Rotgut has been making a spectacle of himself, vomiting in the street and corrupting youth.  The Earldom of Meadistrad has never addressed the issue of public drunkenness before.  Because the issue has literally never come up before now, the Earldom-qua-authority can genuinely be said to have been passive with respect to public drunkenness up to this point.  The large number of potential ways to address public drunkenness remain possible during the time before a concrete choice has been made.  It is only the case that an authority remains literally passive on a controvertible issue when that authority has never considered or been asked to consider that issue.

Once the issue of public drunkenness has been raised, though, this collapses the wave function.  As in quantum mechanics, mere observation by the authority is all that is required to make a specific concrete result inevitable.  Every response by the authority in question – including considering the issue and choosing expressly to decline to respond at all – converts a large number of potential possibilities for subjects into a more constrained space of  current and future possibilities for subjects. Action always converts a large number of potentialities into a single concrete and particular result.  That is what action means: change of potency into actuality.

It is the nature of every choice made by an authority to constrain possibility: to always and necessarily restrict freedom based on some substantive, discriminatory conception of the good.  Indeed this is the nature of choices in general: choices collapse the infinite possibilities represented by real potentialities into some actual result which precludes all mutually exclusive real possibilities.  When that choice is made by someone in authority acting qua authority, this always and necessarily constrains those subject to that authority.  It changes all of the “might have beens” into a single “this is how it must be”.

Consider the following non-exhaustive list of possible responses I might make to Rollo’s public drunkenness once the issue has been raised:

  1. I express my desire to ignore the issue entirely and send the people who raised it away.
  2. I go on a public drunken bender with Rollo because I think he is a fun guy and his detractors are prudish busybodies.
  3. I declare that subjects of the Earldom are not to be punished for public drunkenness.
  4. I declare that no public accommodation may refuse service on account of public drunkenness.
  5. I declare standards for public drunkenness and prescribe punishments corresponding to those standards.
  6. I declare that subsidiarity authorities should handle the matter of public drunkenness, but reserve the authority to resolve it myself if they can’t get their act together.

Each of these choices is an act by me as the authority: it collapses my subjects’ possible worlds from before the choice into a world constrained by my choice.  (Every act, every choice of behavior, collapses a large number of potential outcomes into one actual outcome).

Because my choice is an act of an authority-qua-authority, this act constrains my subjects. Those subjects who would rather live without vomit in the streets, or those who would rather keep the raucous party going, etc are out of luck if my choice does not produce the kind of outcome they prefer.

Note that I am not passing judgment on the merits or demerits of various choices by authority.  I am merely observing that all choices by an authority qua authority necessarily discriminate based on some substantive conception of the good, in the process necessarily restricting the freedom of subjects, collapsing potential possibilities into a particular authoritative and constraining  result.

So liberalism — the doctrine that liberty is what justifies acts-of-authority — is rationally incoherent.

[1] It does not follow that an authority never grants any sort of permission for anything, of course.  That every single permission is accompanied by a multitude of constraints does not mean that permission is never granted. Permissive will is real enough as a facet or mode of a particular choice; but every coin has both a heads and a tails.  Every concrete choice empowers (or “frees”) a particular actual reality to the detriment of mutually exclusive real potentialities. That God “permits” the world as it is actively precludes infinite different potential ways the world really might have been.

But I trust that He has His reasons.

§ 21 Responses to The Earl of passive-aggressive drunkenness

  • Well said. I quite agree. You’d make a fine Earl. Second link from the bottom, heads or tails,seems to be broken.

    [Fixed the link, thx. –Z]

  • DJ Jazzy Cornelius says:

    Assume activity X is intrinsically wrong. Is it intrinsically wrong for the sovereign to take approach (1) with respect to X?

    [“1. I express my desire to ignore the issue entirely and send the people who raised it away.”]

  • Zippy says:

    DJ Jazzy Cornelius:

    No. For example telling white lies is intrinsically immoral, but if subjects approached me to adjudicate something so trivial I would probably make them all spend the day in the stocks.

  • […] previously observed, every concrete choice made by a human being starts with a large number of potential […]

  • donnie says:

    Zippy, this may be a bit off topic, but I notice that in your OP you use the example of a medieval Earl being approached by his subjects to consider a particular issue.

    It struck me that subjects in the USA, as in nearly all liberal democratic states, lack even this basic ability to approach those who reign over us and make our cases directly to our rulers. Instead, if we want the authorities to address a particular issue our best option is to approach one of our legislative representatives who may, if they are persuaded to do so, take up our cause as their own and attempt to get something done about it.

    But this made me wonder if approaching your legislative representative is, like voting, a form of material cooperation with the reigning liberal order. It seems as if it is, however, it seems likely to me that it has a better chance of being justified under the principle of double effect due to the higher likelihood that your action will result in a good outcome.

    Maybe this topic has been addressed somewhere else on the blog but I’m curious as to whether you have any thoughts on this?

  • Zippy says:

    The main way we approach the sovereign for remedies these days is through the courts. But as you suggest, material cooperation with evil is always a consideration even there.

  • donnie says:

    Ah, perhaps I was thinking of this rather narrowly. I had imagined a group of subjects approaching the Earl of Meadistrad with the aim of persuading him to opt for response #5 and pass a law prohibiting public drunkenness. But I see now that the way the example is structured, the closest modern analogy would probably be that the subjects are plaintiffs in a civil suit against Rollo.

    I am not sure that I follow you regarding the possibility of material cooperation existing in the context of a lawsuit. Surely the authority of the judicial arbitrator is legitimate and authoritative, no? I am not sure why approaching a legitimate, authoritative court of law for adjudication of some controvertible case would involve an instance of material cooperation with evil.

  • Zippy says:


    Ah, perhaps I was thinking of this rather narrowly.

    One of the ways that liberals hide the ball (sometimes even from themselves) is through failure to recognize that enforcement and conflict resolution are authoritative, discriminatory actions undertaken by governments. It is important to kill that habit in ourselves.

    Discussions about “getting the government out of marriage” often suffer from this tendency, for example. Sure the government could get out of the record-keeping business by (for example) refraining from issuing marriage licenses and keeping vital records. But almost everything the government does in the domain of marriage involves resolving disputes between parties over property disposition, child custody, and the like. Along with tax law that is pretty much everything: marriage licenses and keeping vital records are nothing, are just a paper trail.

    Surely the authority of the judicial arbitrator is legitimate and authoritative, no?


    If we know that in order to win our side is going to have to invoke a bad law or precedent it might even be formal cooperation with evil, though. Having the positive law or the views of a person in authority on our side is materially helpful but it isn’t an all-purpose moral disinfectant. We are still responsible for the means and ends we choose, and (as is always the case) a good end doesn’t guarantee that the particular means are morally acceptable.

  • donnie says:

    True, but isn’t that also true in an illiberal polity? If I approach the Earl of Meadistrad and attempt to persuade him that Rollo’s public drunkenness ought to be dealt with according to this other law on the books which states that all those who vomit on the street are to be tortured and subsequently beheaded, I am clearly in formal cooperation with evil.

    My view is more that there isn’t any material cooperation inherent in bringing a case before a court in a liberal polity, while there probably is material cooperation inherent in attempting to persuade one’s legislative representative to champion a particular bill.

  • Zippy says:

    Looks right to me.

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  • […] = the maximization of choice'”. And it is here that we begin to see Zippy’s valid critiques of Libertarianism as a real […]

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  • […] matter in space and time are those who are in the best position to make wise choices in how to deal with the matter proximately.  So they should be the particular authorities empowered to make those choices, subject to review […]

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