The Definition and Role of Degeneracy

The formation and maintenance of a stable social order requires widespread recognition and respect of the first principle of self-ownership, as well as its direct corollaries of non-aggression and private property rights. Although these three ideas are necessary, they are not sufficient for describing how people should behave in order to preserve such a social order against both internal decline and foreign conquest. It is in the discussion of proper behavior beyond the basics of libertarian theory that the right-libertarian in general and the libertarian reactionary in particular will use the term ‘degeneracy.’ This term and the concepts it represents are effective and powerful when utilized correctly, but many right-libertarians do not do this. Instead, they use the term as a snarl word to signal against and denounce particular behaviors, as well as insult the people who engage in those behaviors. Though this may have beneficial effects, it is not nearly as potent as a proper explanation and denunciation of harmful behaviors. Thus, it is necessary to synthesize a useful definition of degeneracy. Once this is done, we will explore the nuances of our definition and apply it to relevant situations and behaviors.

Defining Terms

Though dictionaries are rarely capable of providing the full understanding of a word, they are an excellent place to start. Merriam-Webster defines degeneracy as “sexual perversion” and degenerate as “having declined or become less specialized (as in nature, character, structure, or function) from an ancestral or former state,” “having sunk to a lower and usually corrupt and vicious state,” “one degraded from the normal moral standard,” and “having low moral standards; not honest, proper, or good.” From here, we get a sense of degeneracy as immorality, which entails corruption of good into evil, decline from greatness, lack of virtue, and loss of capability. Thus, the opposite of degeneracy encompasses the maintenance of good against evil, the restoration of greatness, the presence of virtue, and the growth of capability. These are the essential features of a stable social order, more simply known as civilization. Therefore, we may also define degeneracy as “that which is not conducive to civilization.”

Though the above definition is thought-provoking and superficially correct, it is lacking in nuance and depth. As such, it is necessary to unpack each part of the definition of degeneracy and define some of the terms used in the definition in order to better understand the concept. Let us do this now.

Sexual Immorality

Sexual perversion may appear to stand apart from the other aspects of degeneracy described above, but in many cases, it is at the root of all of them. Understanding degeneracy as “that which is not conducive to civilization” and strong family units as the building blocks of civilization, the role of sexual perversion becomes clear. Activities which prevent, replace, destroy, or otherwise interfere with healthy relationships between mating couples threaten the formation of new family units as well as the health of existing families. These include (but are not limited to) fornication, excessive masturbation, homosexuality, pedophilia, bestiality, spousal abuse, adultery, and no-fault divorce.

The former five behaviors prevent the intimate relationship between husband and wife by replacing it with something else; a premarital relationship, a self-indulgence, a same-sex relationship, a relationship with a child, and a relationship with a member of another species, respectively. The result of these behaviors is that less family units will form, which in turn leads to lesser quantity of offspring and a less healthy environment for the offspring that are produced. If these behaviors become sufficiently widespread, the next generation will be too small to replace the previous generation. Such a society cannot sustain itself and will either be demographically replaced or suffer a collapse. Furthermore, the acceptance of such behaviors in public presents a signalling hazard for heterosexuals, who need to be able to have close relationships with other people without being mistaken for the aforementioned deviants. The widespread acceptance of such deviancy weakens the bonds that are necessary for building a strong community.

The latter three behaviors destroy or otherwise interfere with a healthy bond between husband and wife. Spousal abuse does this by introducing physical harm, while adultery does this by introducing emotional harm and by weakening trust. Finally, no-fault divorce allows couples to dissolve their bonds too easily rather than keeping their commitments to each other and supporting each other during times of hardship. The result of these behaviors is that the family units that form will be less likely to survive, leaving children to deal with the damage, choose sides between their parents, and wonder if they are to blame for the misdeeds of their parents. The children raised in broken homes are more likely to commit crimes, be less productive, and engage in the degenerate behaviors that they witnessed while growing up.

Other Low Standards

The second aspect of degeneracy to consider is low moral standards beyond sexual immorality. This produces a lack of honesty, propriety, and goodness, which in turn produces corruption and viciousness. Dishonesty, when practiced against people who are not committing acts of aggression, usually constitutes fraud. Though some libertarians restrict their consideration of force to physical violence, there is no logical justification for this. In practice, widespread dishonesty will both overburden the dispute resolution mechanisms of a society as well as reduce the level of trust in those institutions to act impartially. Thus, interpersonal violence and other such vigilantism will increasingly become the preferred method of arbitration. The end result is a breakdown of social order.

A lack of goodness refers to a complete lack of concern for one’s fellow human beings for the purpose of this discussion. While a welfare state invariably devolves into its own form of degeneracy through the subsidization of bad behavior and inferior people, a free society may venture too far in the other direction, practicing complete selfishness and financial narcissism rather than a rational thought process for determining which people are worthy of assistance. It is precisely this lack of goodness, combined with the general unwillingness to physically remove problematic people, that creates the conditions for welfare statist demagogues to step in and seduce the masses with their lies. Though such demagogues may themselves be physically removed from a libertarian social order, one cannot physically remove an idea, and the idea of forced redistribution of property will linger in the minds of the disaffected until they act upon it. There is thus a stark choice between private charity, welfare statism, or bloodshed, and the maintenance of a libertarian social order requires that people make the correct choice.

In this case, impropriety refers to rude behavior that does not rise to the level of aggression, dishonesty, or selfishness. This includes everything from excessive profanity to the violation of cultural mores and taboos solely for the sake of doing so. When people use profanity excessively, it can turn off people who would otherwise be receptive to one’s message by conveying the appearance that one is uneducated, undignified, perpetually angry, and generally unfit to be considered as a worthy intellectual. Similarly, if people come to associate libertarianism or reaction with behavior which is transgressive without purpose, then they will recoil against them and turn toward their better-behaved political rivals. (And are not reactionaries supposed to be against such activism as a matter of principle?) Additionally, a successful social order requires the positive establishment and observance of good cultural norms more than revolt against bad ones. After all, those who have nothing to stand for can fall for almost anything.

Degeneracy As A Process

A third aspect of degeneracy is the corruption of good into evil. The above examples mostly describe end states, but degeneracy in practice is a process. One does not typically become degenerate overnight; instead, vices which may be fun or even beneficial in small amounts come to play an ever greater role in one’s life, such that they ruin one’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. This occurs in several stages, which are generally described as introduction, experimentation, regular use, problem or risky use, dependence, and mental disease. The latter three categories may always be described as degenerate, as it is here that harm always outweighs benefit and widespread use would not be conducive to civilization. However, some behaviors have no benefit that outweighs their harm, so regular use, experimentation, and even introduction may be degenerate in some cases.

At this point, it is necessary to make an important observation. Due to the differences in genetics and life experiences between both individuals and population groups, there are some activities which are on the margins between degeneracy and benign behavior. For three examples, a person with an unpleasant family life is more likely to advance from occasional drug use to substance dependence. A person who is genetically predisposed to chase after losses rather than accept them is more likely to become a problem gambler. A population group that adapted to a long-term r-selective environment is less likely to suffer ill effects from weaker family units than a population group that adapted to a long-term K-selective environment. In sum, that which constitutes degeneracy for some may not constitute degeneracy for others. But there exist some behaviors which are degenerate for all, as there are some activities for which there is no safe or beneficial level of participation.

Economic Decline

Finally, degeneracy may be understood in a economic sense. The result of the above forms of degeneracy leaves people unable to function as well as they otherwise could. In an advanced society, the division of labor is necessary because no one can gain the amount of knowledge necessary to be a master of all trades. This means that a worker must become more skilled and more specialized than in a primitive society. The effects of degenerate behavior upon one’s health make one less capable of thinking at a high level and performing skilled labor. The longevity of a person’s working career will also be negatively impacted. As discussed earlier, children raised outside of traditional family structures are less likely to do well in school and work. Dishonesty manifests in the economy as fraud, whether by lying on resumes, misrepresenting one’s goods and services, or simply failing to perform the job that one is hired to do. Lack of goodness has a similar effect, as capitalism will degenerate into the service of greed if the people using capitalism have no motivation to use it to help others. Finally, impropriety leads to a lack of professional etiquette toward customers as well as needless tensions within the workplace. The practical result of widespread degenerate behavior on the economy is thus an overall economic decline.

Conclusion

The basics of self-ownership, non-aggression, and private property are necessary for the creation and maintenance of a libertarian social order, but they are not sufficient. The concept of degeneracy supplements these basics by providing an understanding of the behaviors which must be minimized in order to prevent the decay of a libertarian social order back into statism. Though a libertarian must recognize the right of a person to do oneself wrong, toleration should not equal acceptance or encouragement, and the failure to acknowledge group interests is a sign of political autism. Furthermore, even with the absence of public property, there will still be such a thing as “in public” because there will still be spaces that function as commons for the purpose of social interaction. The traditional solution of disallowing deviancy in these spaces will solve many of the problems that weaken the bonds between people, which are the building blocks of a stable social order.

Ethical Theories at the Murrah Building

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and wounding 680. One third of the building was destroyed, along with damage to 324 other buildings and 86 cars, causing $652 million in damage. McVeigh was motivated by his opposition to the United States federal government and his anger over its actions in the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident and the 1993 Waco Siege. He timed the attack to occur on the second anniversary of the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

To most people, McVeigh is obviously a reprehensible criminal whose actions cannot possibly be justified. Some theories of ethics would agree with that assessment, while others would recommend a different outlook. Let us examine the Oklahoma City bombing through the lenses of deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics to see how each provides a different perspective on McVeigh.

Deontology

Deontology argues that decisions should be made by consulting moral principles. The rightness or wrongness of an act is thus determined by whether it is in keeping with such principles. Deontological theories include the Kantian categorical imperative, which says that one should act only according to the maxim that one can will that it should become a universal law; moral absolutism, which argues that certain actions are intrinsically good or evil; divine command theory, which appeals to God as the judge of right and wrong; and Hoppean argumentation ethics, which derives moral rules from the act of argumentation.

In all such theories, murder is forbidden because initiating violence to kill someone cannot be in accordance with universal law. By definition, murder is not universal but unilateral; if it would occur in reciprocity, then it is a mutual assisted suicide rather than a case of murder. The people killed by McVeigh in Oklahoma City were not the individuals responsible for the state-sanctioned crimes committed at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and were only tangentially connected to the people who were responsible. Though 99 of the 168 victims were part of the state apparatus, the vast majority were unarmed civil ‘servants’. Only eight of the victims were federal law enforcement agents and six were military personnel. The rest of the victims were civilians, and they were not being used as innocent shields by legitimate targets for defensive force. Thus, a deontological approach finds McVeigh’s actions to be completely unjust and criminal in nature.

Consequentialism

Consequentialism, or teleology, argues that the morality of an action depends upon the result of the action. Consequentialist theories differ on what results they deem important. Utilitarianism seeks the most happiness for the greatest number of people; state consequentialism values order, material wealth, and population growth; egoism prioritizes good for the self; altruism seeks good for others; and rule consequentialism functions much like deontology but uses the consequences of moral rules to select them.

The initial answer that may come to mind is that the consequences of McVeigh’s actions were 168 murders, 680 injuries, and $652 million in property damage, thus his actions were immoral. But as with many complex situations, there is an answer—namely this one—which is clear, simple, and wrong. The straightforward answer is wrong because it ignores the counterfactual of what would have happened between that day and this if the Oklahoma City bombing had not occurred. Of course, it is impossible to know precisely what the counterfactual would be, and this uncertainty is an intractable problem with consequentialism. But this should not stop us from making an educated guess.

If McVeigh had not acted, then the mentality of those wielding state power would likely have been that they could perpetrate such atrocities as the Waco Siege without penalty. After all, they hold a monopoly on criminal justice that allows them to immunize themselves from prosecution. Absent vigilantism, they are thus able to escape punishment for their misdeeds. With this in mind, in the absence of the Oklahoma City bombing, federal agents probably would have been more willing to resort to force in such cases as the Montana Freemen standoff in 1996, the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014, and the Malheur standoff in 2016. The former and latter cases did not have the personnel involved to be more deadly than Oklahoma City, but the Bundy Ranch standoff could have resulted in hundreds of deaths on both sides if it had turned into a battle. It is impossible to be certain, but McVeigh’s actions may have altered the mentality of government agents to seek peaceful resolutions to such standoffs, which may have prevented many more deaths than the 168 that McVeigh caused.

Ultimately, any consequentialist analysis requires information that cannot be acquired, so we must treat both the possibility that McVeigh altered government responses to resistance groups and the possibility that he did not. If the state would have acted the same regardless of McVeigh’s actions, then McVeigh was an evildoer. But if the Oklahoma City bombing ultimately prevented greater atrocities in the future, such as a shootout at Bundy Ranch, then McVeigh’s actions produced a greater good for a greater number, more order, and more good for others. Among consequentialist theories, only ethical egoism would certainly condemn McVeigh because he brought capital punishment upon himself, which is not a prioritization of good for the self.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the moral actor rather than on specific actions. The purpose of examining an action in virtue ethics is to find out what the action says about the character of the moral actor. The means of doing this frequently falls back on deontology or consequentialism. What is considered to be a virtue differs among formulations, and this is subject to the cultural mores of a particular place and time.

The general finding of virtue ethics in this case would be that McVeigh’s character was similar to that of many tragic heroes in ancient Greek dramas. He was motivated by a sense of justice, seeing the United States government murder its own citizens with impunity. But like the tragic heroes of old, he had a tragic flaw that brought about his downfall as well as the destruction of those around him. A tragic flaw in a well-written story could not be an obviously negative character trait, but rather a trait which is positive in moderation but becomes negative when taken too far. McVeigh’s sense of justice went to extremes and blinded him to the fact that his bomb would commit its own injustice against the innocent people caught in the blast.

Conclusion

This exercise shows the stark contrast in results that can come from applying the various normative ethical theories to an extreme act. Deontology absolutely condemns such an act as mass murder. Most forms of consequentialism cannot definitively say much of anything, but they can offer educated guesses and help us see what might make such an act a more tolerable evil than inaction. Virtue ethics offers insight into the character of a terrorist, which helps explain what could motivate someone to such an act of mass destruction. Taken together, these theories give us a comprehensive understanding of the ethics concerning terrorist activity.

Defending the Hoppriori Argument

The development of argumentation ethics as a justification for libertarian theory was a milestone in the philosophy of liberty. First presented in 1988 by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, it demonstrates the validity of self-ownership, private property rights, non-aggression, and so forth by showing that the act of arguing against them is at odds with the content of such an argument. Such a case is called a performative contradiction (perfomativer Widerspruch in the original German), and these cannot be rationally advanced in argument. Hoppe’s proposal was controversial at the time, and remains so. Murray Rothbard said of Hoppe’s work,

“In a dazzling breakthrough for political philosophy in general and for libertarianism in particular, he has managed to transcend the famous is/ought, fact/value dichotomy that has plagued philosophy since the days of the scholastics, and that had brought modern libertarianism into a tiresome deadlock. Not only that: Hans Hoppe has managed to establish the case for anarcho-capitalist-Lockean rights in an unprecedentedly hard-core manner, one that makes my own natural law/natural rights position seem almost wimpy in comparison.”

But many other libertarian theorists disagreed. Hoppe and his supporters have adequately rebutted most of their objections, but one critical review has not been countered to this author’s knowledge. In an article published on May 15, 2004, Auburn University philosophy professor Roderick Long offers a non-dismissive criticism of argumentation ethics which does not accept Hoppe’s formulation but leaves room for some future effort to show a connection between libertarian theory and the requirements of rational discourse. Let us respond to Long’s criticism on a point-by-point basis.

Long begins by reconstructing Hoppe’s argument as he understands it:

1. No position is rationally defensible unless it can be justified by argument.
2. No position can be justified by argument if it denies one or more of the preconditions of interpersonal argumentative exchange.
3. Interpersonal argumentative exchange requires that each participant in the exchange enjoy exclusive control over her own body.
4. To deny the right of self-ownership is to deny exclusive control over one’s own body.
5. Therefore, the denial of the right of self-ownership is rationally indefensible.

(1) and (2) are accurate reconstructions, as are (4) and (5). (3) is inaccurate; as Long correctly notes, one could shackle another person’s body but leave their mouth free to speak. But interpersonal argumentative exchange does require that each participant in the exchange enjoy exclusive control over some part of one’s own body, as one cannot communicate without exercising exclusive control over some part of one’s body. It is important to remember that is/ought is something of a false dilemma, in that there is a third matter which bears consideration; could. In sum, there are the way things currently are, the way they should be, and all of the ways they could be. When considering a theory of ethics and rights, it is insufficient to account only for a particular case; one must account for all possible cases. Any part of one’s body which may move could be used for communication (e.g. sign language), and the entirety of a person’s body either moves, is moved by parts which move, or is surrounded by parts which move. As such, one should own the entirety of one’s body because all of it has the potential to be part of an act of argumentation.

Long correctly notes that the conclusion (5) follows from the premises (1-4), and (5) also follows with the necessary modifications to (3) discussed in the previous paragraph. Long disputes Hoppe’s argument by disputing the truth of (1), (2), and (4). Thus, our task is to defend these three premises.

Long begins his critique of (1) by considering the nature of an argument, wondering whether Aristotelian negative demonstration or coherence among propositions count as arguments. Negative demonstration does count as an argument, although it is a more complicated form than affirmative demonstration. Coherence among propositions is necessary but not sufficient to count as an argument; one may make several propositions which do not contradict each other but which cannot be used together to make any conclusion. But both of these are consistent with deriving a conclusion from premises. Long combines the definition of an argument as a derivation of a conclusion from premises with (1) to contend that an infinite regress occurs:

“But presumably the premises themselves must be rationally defensible too; deriving a conclusion from premises that are not rationally defensible is hardly going to confer rational defensibility on the conclusion. So those premises, too, must be justified by argument – and so on for the premises of that argument. Thus we are launched on an infinite regress, with the apparent upshot that no position can be rationally justified – a performatively contradictory assertion if there ever was one.”

Long’s error in this critique is to neglect the fact that the premises of an argument may be first principles, which cannot be and do not need to be demonstrated, as they are self-evident. This saves Hoppe’s argument from the sort of infinite regress that Long describes.

For (2), Long attempts to show a counterexample:

“Consider the statement ‘I am the only person left alive.’ One can certainly imagine circumstances in which one would be warranted in endorsing this statement on the basis of the available evidence. (The last astronaut left on the space station watches the Earth explode ….) Hence the statement could in principle be justified by argument. Yet it certainly denies one of the preconditions of interpersonal argumentative exchange – namely, the existence of other arguers.”

That the statement could in principle be justified by argument is all that matters. As discussed earlier, a rigorous theory of ethics and rights must account for all possible cases. Just because a sentient being is the only one at the moment does not mean that this will always be the case. In Long’s example, perhaps other people were in another spacecraft which also survived, but were on the other side of Earth and will not come into view for some time. Perhaps intelligent extraterrestrials will arrive in a few hours. Perhaps the whole thing was a hoax set up to prank the astronaut.

Note that even if there were a valid concern here, it would be irrelevant because self-ownership is only a useful concept if other arguers exist. If one is the only sentient being in existence, then self-ownership is factually true simply because there exists no one who can challenge one’s self-ownership. Such a solitary sentient being need take no thought of legitimacy or rights, for who shall judge him to be in error?

Long criticizes (4) by asking whether it refers to fact, legitimacy, or right. That is, does denial of exclusive control over another person’s body indicate an acknowledgment of the nature of a current situation, a belief that one violates a moral duty by exercising exclusive control over one’s own body, a belief that one has a moral duty to interfere with another person’s control over their body? One could commit an act of aggression, which could deny the fact of another person’s self-ownership but not the legitimacy or the right. Long does not produce an example in which the legitimacy of self-ownership is accepted but the right of self-ownership is denied, though he contends that such a situation may exist. In the case of self-ownership, such an example requires that a person be using their self-ownership in a way that violates moral duties to other people, as nothing other than estoppel would be a sufficiently strong cause for denying a person’s self-ownership.

Long correctly notes that (4) is only true if it is taken to refer to right rather than fact or legitimacy, as using fact would mean that “might makes right” and using legitimacy would result in a performative contradiction (to argue that exclusive control of one’s body is illegitimate, one must exercise such control). Long uses this result to say of (3),

“But then, if the argument is to remain valid, premise (3) must likewise be reinterpreted to mean ‘Interpersonal argumentative exchange requires that each participant in the exchange enjoy a right to exclusive control over her own body.’ But why should we grant the truth of (3), under that interpretation? Whatever plausibility (3) had came from interpreting it as talking either about the fact or the legitimacy, not the right. When (3) is interpreted as talking about the right, it starts looking less like a premise and more like the intended conclusion.”

Now we see not only why Long’s formulation of (3) was inaccurate, but why it was necessary to correct. Had (3) been left unmodified, there would have been a serious error. But with (3) corrected and shown to have plausibility as a right, Hoppe’s argument holds.

Long concludes with two broader worries about Hoppe’s argument. Defending libertarian rights amounts to defending a view about the content of justice, which is at odds with Long’s Aristotelian position. Also, Hoppe’s argument commits us to recognize and respect a libertarian theory of rights regardless of our goals, which appears to say that there is a practical requirement without a means-end structure. We may dispense with these criticisms by rejecting the Aristotelian position in favor of a strict deontological framework. But as Long writes elsewhere of the deontological position,

“What sort of value does justice have? Is justice to be valued as a means, as an ultimate end, or neither?

Some deontologists might plump for the latter option: neither. Rights are not goals to be pursued, either as ends in themselves or as means to further ends; rather, they are side-constraints on our pursuit of goals. But it’s difficult to make sense of this idea praxeologically. If justice is neither one of our ultimate ends, nor a means to one of our ultimate ends, what reason could we have to care about it?

Suppose, then, that justice is an ultimate end — one that serves no further value beyond itself. Then either it is our sole ultimate end, or it is one among others. But it would be very odd to have justice as one’s sole ultimate end, as though respecting people’s rights were the one and only goal worth pursuing. Such an end would radically under-determine the shape of one’s life.

If justice is an ultimate end, then, it must be one among others. But in that case, how is it to be integrated with our other ultimate ends? Do we make trade-offs when ultimate ends conflict? Or do we look for some way of conceiving of our ultimate ends so that conflicts are impossible? In either case, we seem to be asking how to fit justice into the broader goal of an integrated life-plan – what the Greeks called eudaimonia. But then we are no longer treating justice as an ultimate end; justice now serves the more inclusive end of eudaimonia.”

These concerns merit an answer, and the answer is that rights are not side-constraints, but are hard limits which should be considered binding upon all people at all times. While this may not be accomplished in fact (might does not make right but it does make outcomes), it is an end worthy of pursuit. While justice is an ultimate end, this does not mean that it serves no further value beyond itself. The practical purpose of justice is to reduce unnecessary conflicts, which in turn reduces unnecessary destruction of property and loss of life. The end result of justice is a maximization of liberty. It is for this reason that a proper sense of justice, as illuminated by the Hoppean argument for libertarian rights, should stand above any other ultimate ends that one may have.

To conclude, a Hoppean argument for libertarian rights does work if formulated correctly, and there is no need to embed it within a eudaimonist framework. Long’s criticisms are better informed than most, but they ultimately fall short of toppling argumentation ethics.