Today’s post is a far cry from my original podcast episode (and most popular post to-date). As far as I can tell, all of the points I raised on both sides of that dialogue still apply, but I have had about four years to think about it and have some more ideas to throw around.
Earlier this year, I had a surprising revelation which was earth-shattering for me, but would probably come across to my readers as obvious as the revelation I had in my post concerning surprises, themselves. That revelation is that not only is value subjective, but value is ordinal, not cardinal. Half of you are probably saying “I don’t even know what that means” and the other half are saying “Well, duh.” Cardinality, with regards to numbers, is essentially numbering: “one, two, three…” Ordinality, essentially means that something is ordered; with regards to lists of things, it would mean that rather than using numbers, one would use superlatives and relationships: “This more than that, that more than the other thing, etc.”
This is one of those things that usually goes unexamined by just about everyone, myself included. The reason this comes as a surprise to me is a result of my Marxist and Classical roots. One of the pipe-dreams of the communists is the idea of a scientifically-engineered economy; for a prime example of this pipe-dream, one need only look as far as Keynesian (or mainstream) economics and the arch-Keynesian, Paul Krugman. The only way this fiction could appear remotely possible is if one is capable of empirically evaluating individuals’ subjective preferences. Empirical studies require numbers and raw data, which one cannot acquire if value is ordinal, not cardinal. Therefore cardinal value is taken by Marxists as a given, and usually only unconsciously.
If anyone has worked in engineering in any capacity, they can understand that if one changes something even very minor and unobserved in the design of a building, machine, or piece of software one of two possibilities are likely to occur: either the general design can continue operation unaffected, or the whole system will fail horribly and unexpectedly, resulting in all sorts of confusion and hair-pulling. In this case, I knew intuitively that as I realized this minor difference, it would impact my philosophical comprehension concerning all sorts of things, including but not limited to my reductivist understanding of reality, the psychology of man, linguistic quirks, and the ethics of voting.
I have been careful in my use of language concerning preferences already: pointing out that certain options were “not preferable” or “least bad”, in order to not leave the impression that I would endorse such an option. If I recall correctly, a good example of this quirk is lurking in my post on crime and vice but I could be mistaken. Upon examination, though, I’m not so sure that such a linguistic turn is appropriate. In reality, with value being subjective and ordinal, there really is no such thing as “not preferable” or even “less bad”; instead, there’s simply varying degrees of preference, relative between options that are available. At this moment, I prefer sleep to food and working on this blog post to sleep. When one looks at action in the context of consequences, I generally prefer working my job and getting paid to sleeping at my desk and getting fired. When one looks at general principles, I prefer verisimilitude to fantasy and moral action to immoral action.
I’ve thus far demonstrated a preference for living over dying, pleasure over pain, quality over quantity, etc. At any given moment, given a particular context, I may act in contradistinction to these general preferences: acting in such a way so as to cause pain in the immediate future for pleasure in the long run, for example. If I were starving to death in a desert and the only prospect for food in any redemptive about of time were a bowl of cyanide-laced curry, I may choose to act against my preference for remaining alive given the morbid prospects on all sides. These are just examples, but I think you get the point.
These examples are not examples of a violation of some sort of principle or character trait but are, instead, examples of the subjectivity of human action. Action requires an assessment of the facts at hand, a desire for a particular outcome, and the possibility of that outcome being achieved; it’s a uniquely human activity. As such, even though I have a general preference for such things, the facts on the ground may disallow certain possible outcomes, limiting the opportunities for action to options that are, in the abstract, less preferable than the options usually available.
This, in a way, is informed by my description of ethics. If ethics is the rational investigation of actionable goals, ethics is really the source of a framework by which to determine preferences and actions to be taken to achieve said preferences. It is also informed by my description of responsibilities in my discussion of intellectual property. If one cannot be responsible for the ideas that others concoct from available sense experience, one is not endorsing a particular course of action on a moral basis by expressing a preference by way of action or word. In other words, I would not be endorsing suicide as a moral maxim in the case of a desert with poisoned curry; I would merely be acting on a preference specific to myself and the particular context in which I found myself. Sorry Kant, Aquinas, and other positivists, you’re wrong in this case.
I’m sure most of my readers have played some variation of “would your rather?” In most variations of this game, there is a set of options (usually two) offered with no context. “Would you rather die of exposure to heat or exposure to cold?” or, “Would you rather make out with a movie star or drive a sweet car?” are good examples of such options. Most normal people simply weigh the options based either on immediate circumstances: “Well, right now I’m hot, so it would be a sort of relief and cruel irony all at once to die of cold…” or they weigh the options based on a self-assessment of character, “Well, one set of lips is more or less the same as any other (to me), but I’m never gonna get to drive something like a Formula 1 if I don’t take this chance…” The sophomoric philosophical types (myself included) more often answer with nonsense responses which try to contextualize the options or point out that “Neither option is preferable, so I’d just let whichever one happens first to happen.” I’ve since learned the error of my ways and I’m trying to navigate this new understanding of subjective value.
So, today, I find myself in a convoluted and Kafkaesque context for certain actions and opportunities (or lack thereof) to express my preferences. Any of my readers are likely aware of my default list of complaints, so I don’t need to rehash them today. The reason that list of complaints becomes pertinent today is this: when one is faced with a hyper-inclusive mass-democracy which possesses a monopoly on violence and perceived legitimacy, one is forced to either roll over and take whatever abuse comes one’s way, engage in one-tenth measures to perform damage control, or to fight or flee.
There’s several popular analogies and limit-cases anarchists and statists alike like to appeal to in order to demonstrate some aspect or another of voting. There’s also a lot of cases people throw around concerning whether one has an obligation to vote, whether voting is a violation of the NAP, whether a vote is an endorsement of a particular candidate and everything he will do, whether voting is an act of self-defense or an act of legitimizing the crimes of the state, and so much more; it’s an insane rabbit-hole that I’ve been spelunking in for a while, now.
At the end of the day, though, only individuals act and one doesn’t bear responsibility for the actions of other individuals. As such, the moral and ethical status of voting relies entirely on the nature of communication and preferences. Is voting a means by which one endorses another individual or delegates authority? Or, alternatively, is voting nothing more than a voicing of a preference. If it is voicing a preference, is it voicing a preference in the context of availability, like in a game of “would you rather”, where you have only choice A or choice B? Or is it voicing a preference in the abstract, where you’re offered choice A or B, but you could just say “I’m gonna look for better options”?
For four years, I have been a principled anarchist non-voter. For those four years, my conscience has been clean. This has probably been for a number of reasons: the most primary of which is that, given the ontological framework I was working with, voting was both unethical and immoral. This position was best described, in writing, in my initial post on voting. During that time, I still had a lot of Marxist predispositions I hadn’t yet analyzed or even come to be aware of, most notable of which is the fact that I was an expressivist as opposed to a realist and that value is ordinal not cardinal.
I would love to take my time and sort out all of the answers in as long a timeline as is needed, but this year’s ballot is coming due in a matter of days and I am doing what I can to be as virtuous and as moral as I can be despite access to the truth of the matter. It doesn’t help that previous elections have been presented as a choice between socialism and socialism-lite while this election, if my understanding is accurate, can easily play out to be the choice between real war versus proxy war, full-blown self-destruction and merely bad economic choices, and socialists propagating versus socialists killing themselves or moving away. Really, I’d almost sell my soul just to see the Clintons in prison, anyway.
The way I see it right now, if I fill out a ballot and turn it in, all I have done is draw some lines on paper and send that paper to some socialist who’s going to pretend to interpret those lines in accordance with my preferences. If I’m doing so to voice a preference between one candidate or another, or raising versus maintaining taxes, or using the violent apparatus of the state to force people to by things they don’t want and sell to people they don’t like or to let people mind their own business, I’m simply playing a game of “would you rather” in the context of a world in which there is a violent gang that is going to pretend to be acting on my preferences.
If they actually did act on my preferences in the abstract, they would systematically shut down all operations and auction off assets to make bankruptcy payments to those that own US Federal debt. In more contextualized circumstances, I’d rather use tax dollars to build walls and reduce the flood of welfare-seekers as opposed to subsidizing the importation of the same and I’d rather use the bully-pulpit of the presidency to promote masculinity, productivity, and competitiveness as opposed to death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness.
Admittedly, this looks more like a personal aesthetic choice to me than a moral one. The current opportunity-cost associated with filling out a ballot, for me, is the 45 minutes it would take to consider the options, google a few judges and local representatives, and drop it off on my way to work. Seeing as how those 45 minutes would probably be spent playing DOOM or watching anime, I think I can spare them. I hope, in the future to be so productive so as to be unable to afford that cost. Then I can go back to being a non-voter because I’m going the ethically-superior route for expressing my preferences, a-la Assange.
Yes, I know that the rampant voter and election fraud swamp my singular vote and that the electoral college doesn’t give a damn about the popular vote. Yes, I know that democracy is the least legitimate of all the forms of government (of which, all are illegitimate) and that I’ve said in the past that killing voters might not be a violation of the NAP. Yes, I know that the group of individuals calling themselves “the state” will continue to murder and rape at more-or-less the same rate. All this considered, it doesn’t change the fact that the one-tenth measure of simply saying “I’d rather you rape me a little more gently” would be preferable to just rolling over and taking it.
TL;DR: I’ve recently discovered the fact that value is ordinal, not cardinal. Where that would normally mean very little to most people, it has altered my ontology sufficiently so as to make me reconsider a great many things. Most pertinent to this fall is the moral status of voting. I’m writing this blog post to follow up on one of my first posts concerning voting and to kick around some newer considerations I have concerning moral, ethical, and aesthetically appealing action. As always, this is intended to be a setpiece for conversation, not some doctrine to which anyone must hold fast.
Oh, and P.S. I’m going to try and actually make a follow-up post showing exactly how I’m going to vote and to encourage you to do as I do. Spoiler alert: Hilary is evil incarnate and all of the third-party candidates are almost as bad for various reasons.
P.P.S. Don’t forget to support this project on Patreon!