Meet the Undefended Assertions

The following essay was originally written as a post to the newsgroup humanities.philosophy.objectivism, at a time when Greg Swann was posting there (in February 1999, to be precise). It discusses one of Swann's online essays. Since his work is published to the Web, I thought it only fitting that this essay should also have its own page.

This version has been revised slightly from the original, both to provide context and for stylistic improvements. Interested readers can find the original posting and the responses to it (none came from Swann, although he acknowledged in another thread that he had seen the post) in the Google archives.

Greg Swann is an anarchist writer with a significant presence on the Internet. He has a web site of his writings (including both fiction and essays) and has written multiple blogs (not all related to politics). In the days before blogging allowed him to distribute his musing in a forum he controls, he used to post to Usenet groups, most notably to humanities.philosophy.objectivism. In his Usenet posts, he often referred readers to essays on his web pages as a major part of his response to questions or criticisms. Of all his writings, the one he referred to most is an essay called "Meet the Third Thing." This essay of 4000-plus words purportedly contains Swann's proof that the use of retaliatory force (along with other unequal uses of force) is unjustified. Such a proof would be a very significant achievement, since virtually all political theories accept that the use of retaliatory force is morally justified. "Retaliatory" force means force used in response to a prior wrong, as opposed to the initiation of force that is not in response to anything and also in contrast to defensive force used at the very moment one is being attacked. Only defensive force is acceptable according to Swann. He claims to have proven that the initiation of force and the use of retaliatory force are both wrong.

So, does Swann's essay succeed in offering such a proof? I don't think it does. If it is not a successful proof, what is it really? To be frank, it's mostly Swann repeating himself a lot. Despite the essay's length, Swann really only has a couple of points to make, and they could be made much more briefly. Still, since I want neither to argue the same points a dozen times, nor to be accused of misrepresenting Swann, I have distilled about a page of the excepts from "Meet the Third Thing" that cover all of the relevant points. The following excerpts are taken from the web version of Swann's essay:

When I come to arrest you, there is only you and only me. I am like you and you are like me. We are equal as things, as equal as two rocks or two cans of soup or two kittens. You can jump a little higher than me and I can run a little faster than you, but these are merely differences of degree. There is no power or potential that you have that I lack, nor do I have any special capacities that you do not have. We are equal. If I have the right or power or capacity to do something to you, then you have the right or power or capacity to do it right back to me.

So how is it that I have the right to use pain compliance on you and submit you to a cavity search, but you lack the right to do those same things right back to me?

For this brutality to be justified, there must be some Third Thing present with us. There is you and there is me, and if we are alone, then we are equal. If we are not equal, then there must be a Third Thing in the room that confers upon me super-human powers and consigns you to sub-human responses. [...]

[T]he Third Thing, ultimately, is insanity defended with devout solemnity. There is no Social Contract imagined by you but binding upon me. There is no Divine Right of Kings. Every person is possessed of free will, but there is no accumulation of that will, and the voluntary support of many or even most people does not justify anything. There is no zeitgeist. Neither your convenience nor mine justifies our domination of our neighbors, or each other. You have the capacity to act in self-defense, but it absurd to argue that this somehow prevents future injuries. "The consent of the governed" could only have meaning if the consent were explicit and unanimous. The "race" has no rights. Neither Socialism nor any other creation of the mind of man is inevitable. And, finally, the sacred ceremonial amulet is just a rock suspended from a rope. [...]

And the question that each one of these creeds--and many others--is an answer to is this:

How can we dominate people without claiming that "might makes right"? [...]

We're asking whether or not you have the right or power or capacity to dominate me, to break me like you'd break your horse to saddle. If you don't, then we must either find a way to cooperate or part company. But if you do, then we are not the same kind of thing, we are as unlike as you and your horse, and "might makes right" is the only philosophical justification for your actions. [...]

In order for you to claim any justification for your domination of me, you must insist that there is some distinction between us, some right or power or capacity that makes you super-human and renders me sub-human. This distinguishing property, whatever it is, is the Third Thing.

And, whatever it is, it is imaginary. It does not exist. We are equal. You are what I am and I am what you are. We are equally human, the same kind of thing, and there is no basis in evidence for claiming that we are in some way distinct. [...]

We cannot dominate people without claiming that "might makes right". And we cannot rationally claim that "might makes right". Ergo, we cannot in justice attempt to dominate each other. We can do it, if we want, but cannot justify it in reason. [...]

And there you have it. The really short version (using terminology that Swann might or might not approve) is: Human beings are metaphysically equivalent. In order to justify a moral distinction that would allow one to use force when another may not, one must assume the existence of a "Third Thing" that makes the one superior over the other. There is no such Third Thing, and therefore unequal uses of force cannot be justified.

The discerning reader may have noticed that Swann's "argument" relies on a series of undefended assertions. First, and least controversially, is the claim: "If I have the right or power or capacity to do something to you, then you have the right or power or capacity to do it right back to me." Now this statement is a bit vague, because Swann does not clearly distinguish between overall metaphysical equivalence (we generally have the same rights and powers) and specific moral equivalence (the same rights and powers are equally applicable to both of us in every specific situation). The generous interpretation is that he means metaphysical equivalence. I say this is the generous interpretation because if Swann is claiming moral equivalence so early in the essay, then he is simply asserting his conclusion without offering any argument at all. Assuming he means metaphysical equivalence, then this is a common assumption among his readers, and one that is presumably true. It seems safe to grant him this particular assertion.

Next comes his claim that any unequal use of force must rely on a "Third Thing," which "confers upon me super-human powers and consigns you to sub-human responses." While such a description might apply to some of the theories Swann mentions -- the Divine Right of Kings, for example -- it does not seem like a very good description of many other theories. For example, the rights theories traditionally espoused by classical liberals and libertarians typically justify the use of force because of an imbalance of circumstance or action, not of powers or rights. That is, such theories typically justify Person A using force against Person B because of something Person B has done which warrants a particular treatment under their overall scheme of rights and powers, not because of some third object that grants special rights or powers to Person A. In other circumstances, such a theory might support a claim that the right to use force belongs to Person B instead. To call such justifications a "Third Thing," when they rely entirely on attributes and actions of the two "things" (people) under discussion, is odd rhetoric at the least (and outright misrepresentation at the worst).

Regardless of whether one agrees with the "Third Thing" description, Swann asserts that no such "Thing" exists. That is, he asserts that there is no justification for unequal uses of force. Thus does metaphysical equivalence lead to moral equivalence. Unfortunately, assert this conclusion is all that he does. He does not refute, or even analyze, any of the major theories that attempt to justify the unequal use of force. Even the unpopular Divine Right of Kings escapes without any more challenge than the assertion that it does not exist. Swann makes off-handed one-sentence swipes at a few theories, such as the Social Contract. Such one-sentence "refutations" are not likely to persuade anyone with any real knowledge of those theories. In the end, Swann's response to thousands of pages of philosophical discourse propounded by dozens of authors promoting these theories, of which at least one is accepted by virtually every one of Swann's readers, is simply to claim that they are all wrong. He backs this claim with nothing more than the Argument from Repeated Assertion. (For what it's worth, I think Swann does convincingly undermine the authority of "the sacred ceremonial amulet," which unfortunately does not appear in any prominent philosophical theory of which I am aware.)

There are other dubious elements to Swann's theories. I have not yet touched, for example, on his use of the term "domination" to describe every unequal use of force. Since this quirky terminology can be translated into normal English, I have simply done so. However, the emotional resonance of his argument certainly flags when one realizes that his vision of "attempted dominance" includes a little old lady asking the police to retrieve her purse from the snatcher, or a rape victim demanding what most would consider justice for her attacker. In Swann's parlance, these responses to crime are themselves "crimes." I might also note how he manages to define those who disagree with him as "insane." However, these items are beside the point when one realizes that at its heart, Swann's argument is a non-argument. It is simply Swann's elaborate assertion that every contrary theory is wrong, with no attempt to refute, or apparently even to understand, those theories.

Now, I do not wish to be accused of misplacing the burden of proof. Those who want to justify the unequal use of force have a responsibility to make the case for their theories. However, if Swann wishes to dismiss them all without addressing their individual arguments, then he will have to find some common flaws or fallacies in those theories. His willingness to lump every theory other than his own under the banner of the "Third Thing" and denounce them without argument, is not a flaw in their claims.

Perhaps Swann has, hidden in some corner of the web or Usenet or simply in the recesses of his own mind, a convincing set of arguments against the numerous moral and political theories that make claims contrary to his own. If so, he should bring them forth. As long as he continues to refer people to the non-arguments of "Meet the Third Thing," he cannot credibly claim to have done so.

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