A Journal for Western Man
Murphy v. Stolyarov:
Debate on Capital Punishment:
Dr. Robert P. Murphy and G. Stolyarov II
Issue L- February 26, 2006
In response to my article, “The Evil of Islamist Intolerance”—which called for the death penalty to be applied to violent, murderous Islamist fanatics, Dr. Robert P. Murphy wrote to the Hillsdale Collegian critiquing my advocacy of capital punishment. I replied to Dr. Murphy’s letter in “The Capital Punishment Imperative,” which Dr. Murphy answered in Gene Callahan’s blog.
This will be my second reply to Dr. Murphy, where I will answer his principal objections to my case, point by point. I will cite the entirety of his latest blog post in the course of responding to it—therefore allowing readers to view both positions side by side.
(1) [Mr. Stolyarov] has still just asserted that someone forfeits his right to life when he murders another. I still maintain that I don't find this assertion compelling. [Mr. Stolyarov] adds a little bit I suppose with the non-contradiction stuff, but I can walk around thinking, "I don't have any mass." Nonetheless I do. By the same token, even if by his actions a murderer shows that he doesn't believe people have the right to life, nonetheless they do.
Dr. Murphy seems to think that it is possible for a society to simultaneously hold that both a) every individual has an inalienable right to life and that b) some individuals may be allowed to proceed to violate others’ rights to life while theirs remain respected. This in itself is a contradiction. How can one consistently assert that these rights are universal and yet may be violated with impunity—without adequate retribution?
A society that holds a contradictory view of rights does not hold a valid or effective view of rights in the area where the contradiction exists. This is because the very concept of rights follows from the law of non-contradiction. This law, A=A, is actually a statement of three fundmanetal axioms: existence, identity, and consciousness. Man exists, he has an identity, and we—as men—are both conscious entities and conscious of our own identity. Man’s identity is what it is and any action in contravention of man’s nature is a contradiction held with regard to his identity. Only an internally consistent view of man’s nature allows the derivation of natural rights from the identity of man. Man is a being of volitional consciousness with the capacity to reason. Reason is man’s sole means of survival, and it is a profoundly individual faculty. Though man is able to violate the dictates of reason, nobody else can reason competently in his place; nobody else has an individual’s direct access to his own mind.
Thus, because reason is man’s sole means of survival and no one else can reason for him, it follows that he ought to be allowed to use his own reason without any external coercive intervention. This conclusion translates into the natural right of property—because man’s reason is his own property if we grant him full sovereignty to use it. Furthermore, to use reason is to use reason in the material world—which means to have sovereignty over the material products of one’s use of reason. The same principle that grants a given individual the sovereignty over his property also grants every other individual an identical sovereignty over theirs. The two parts of this principle form an inseparable unity; one cannot violate either without violating the other. The question is not, “Who, among individuals, ought to have full sovereignty over his property?” but rather, “Are all individuals either fully sovereign over their property or not at all?”
A murderer who violates the right of any other over his most fundamental property—his life—from which his reason and bodily faculties stem—answers that question negatively and therefore concedes that he is not at all sovereign over his fundamental property and may thus be deprived of it in accordance with the magnitude of his crime.
A vast difference exists between thinking contradictory thoughts and acting on them. A mere thought gives no final indication of genuine preference. As Murray Rothbard pointed out in “Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics,” an external observer can only clearly discern another’s preference from his actions.
A person who merely says that he has no mass might be joking, trying to get attention, deliberately lying, or enjoying the sound he makes when uttering those words. From his words alone, we have no guarantee that he is serious. The only way in which he can truly convey his belief to us is by attempting to actualize it. If he really thinks he has no mass, he will attempt to eliminate all the mass that he has; he will have to obliterate himself in order to prove to us that he is earnest! Conservation of matter will render this endeavor difficult; he will have to transfer all of his mass to other entities—after which he will, of course, cease to exist. The laws of reality themselves do not allow him to seriously maintain such an erroneous belief and continue to live as a massive being.
Similarly, a man who only thinks and verbally asserts that some people have more rights than others ought not be punished because he has not earnestly manifested a contradiction in his thoughts. He, similarly, might have ulterior motives for voicing this belief: he might be satirizing it or playing devil’s advocate or just seeking to shock people by his pronouncement. The only way somebody genuinely demonstrates that he holds a contradiction with respect to rights is by acting on it. Thus, the only way one can truly show that he believes that some people have no right to life is by killing them. If he is allowed to hold this contradiction with impunity, he will obliterate the sanctity of rights in his society.
(2) [Mr. Stolyarov] hasn't taken up my cases of torture or a blind man blinding a sighted man. Does he think "two teeth for a tooth" applies there too? E.g. if someone tortures another, do we have not only the right but the moral duty to torture him back?
In this case, the prerogative to torture is reserved only to the injured party. That is, if the injured party wishes to give the torturer twice as much torture as he has inflicted (the equivalent amount of torture to be decided by the injured party), that is the injured party’s prerogative. However, I am presuming that most people who have been tortured are personally averse to torturing others; they would derive disutility from torturing another human being and therefore will choose to abstain. They are free, however, to stipulate other terms for compensation. They can state, for example, “This torture harmed me in the manner that the loss of $X million would have harmed me.” In that case, they can legitimately demand that the torturer pay them $2X million.
A similar case holds for the blind man throwing acid in the eyes of a sighted person. The formerly sighted man could stipulate how great a disutility the loss of his eyes caused him and thereby take twice that amount from the criminal. He would be allowed to specify any sort of compensation he wished: in money, in other goods, in labor, or even in the criminal’s proximity to him. He could state, for example, that a part of his compensation must include the criminal being forever forcibly restrained from associating with him.
(3) [Mr. Stolyarov] oddly says that the aggrieved party, Y, can take any goods that "as judged by Y" are of "equivalent" value to the television set. Isn't this a bit dangerous? What if Y thinks the SUV in the driveway is equivalent?
Y would have to make the equivalent value argument in a court of law, where he would need to present a full rationale for why he considers the goods he would like to take from the offender to be of equivalent value. If the judge agrees with him that his claim is fully reasonable, he will be obliged to enforce it. If the judge sees faults with the claim, he will first have to ask the plaintiff to elaborate on his reasoning and fill in perceived gaps. If the plaintiff is unable to do so, the judge will ask him to present a different, more logical claim on the criminal’s property.
Nobody would be expropriated without due process of law.
(4) [Mr. Stolyarov] incredibly argues that I don't have the right to prescribe mercy for my murderers, because someone who kills me isn't just harming me, but [Mr. Stolyarov] himself (since *blush* I'm his favorite economics teacher). It seems that this ignores the basic libertarian point that people don't have property rights in conditions, but in things. For example, even though in a sense I harm my competitor if I open a business next door, I haven't trampled his rights. In the same way, if someone kills me, under libertarian theory my rights have been violated, but not those of my friends (who are now deprived of my razor sharp wit and stunning good looks).
People’s property rights are harmed whenever coercion is present. If any two consenting parties wish to make a trade on the property of one of the traders and are prevented from doing so by a third party, that third party is practicing coercion. Let us presume that I am on Dr. Murphy’s property, and we are both talking peacefully about matters that interest us. A third party comes in and steps between us and tells Dr. Murphy to be quiet; he then uses material means to suppress our conversation so as to prevent Dr. Murphy from talking. I am still able to talk, though Dr. Murphy is no longer able to listen or respond. This, I allege, is also coercion against the party that has not been forcibly suppressed. Though I still have the full use of my body and the material consequences of its application, my rights have been violated, because I have been forcibly prevented from making a consensual exchange.
A right is not just a right to a thing. It is a prerogative to action. When two parties wish to act in a mutually-agreed-upon manner that does not harm others, any violation of one of those parties’ prerogatives inherently violates the other’s as well. That other party, after all, is no longer able to exercise its prerogative to act in coordination with the other consenting agent. If the harm is irreparable, as in the case of murder, the living injured party may prescribe irreparable penalties for the offender.
Robert P. Murphy teaches economics at Hillsdale College and is an adjunct scholar at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He prepared the Home Study Course in Austrian Economics, which is available for $350. Send him mail.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, The Autonomist, Le Quebecois Libre, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at email@example.com.
Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.
Order Mr. Stolyarov's newest science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, in eBook form, here. You only pay $10.00, with no shipping and handling fees. You may also find free previews, descriptions and reviews of Eden against the Colossus at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/eac.html.