Archive for June, 2004

The Life’s not Fair Fallacy

Last night a friend of mine was recounting a story concerning, what seemed to me at least, a particularly nasty character. The story was followed by his, the character in question, justification for his behaviour:

‘Well life’s not fair either.’

Presumably the intent for such a statement is to show that, since life is generally not fair, certain unfair practices are justifiable.

Given that this statement is used relatively often as a justification for unfair practices or behaviour, when it really is nothing of the sort, seems to call for its classification as a fallacy.

The Life’s not Fair Fallacy.

The fallacy is committed when an appeal to the ‘unfairness of life’ is used as a justification for some act or practice. However, the normative status of the practice in question obviously stands irrespective of whether or not similar instances of unfairness happen in the world.

An example:

Lenny bought a car with an engine full of sawdust yesterday. He took it back to the dealer and protested that this was simply not fair. The dealer replied, “well that’s life for you”.

Note: The Life’s not fair fallacy is a variant of the two wrongs make a right fallacy, however, the former uses a fallacious appeal to common unfairness in life, the latter to another wrong action.

Although it may seem that, an appeal to the unfairness of nature, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, disease and other natural disasters can be used as a reminder that one should not protest at their car being crushed by falling trees, it must be remembered that this is because nature is not in the business of fairness. An appeal to the unfairness of nature, however, may be used in an attempt to justify some human practice or act, in which case, the fallacy is committed.

A Critique of the Freenet Philosophy – A Response to the Reply by Ian Clarke

It could very well be the case that to indulge in child pornography may satiate the sexual desire of a paedophile and consequentially render that person less of a threat to other people; however, my argument is neutral to this. It merely relies on the fact that if there is greater consumption of such materials and therefore greater production, people will be harmed inherently by this production if not necessarily its consequences.

It is true that bad people could use any tool, absolute liberty included, to do bad things. Yet rational persons would never argue in favour of absolute liberty as it essentially entails a return to the Hobbesian state of nature. The prevention of the negative factors that it is possible for a state of affairs to bring about, by no means necessitates prevention of the positive. This is quite aside from the point that the Freenet tool itself is not specifically what is being challenged here, but the idea that the total and absolute negation of censorship will result, both directly and indirectly, in harm to people. If a tool is created specifically to further this end, then that action is ethically indefensible; or so the argument goes.

The examples of actions given, and asserted as showing the harm principle as unworkable, are, ironically enough, the very kind of actions that this principle seeks to protect. If harm is thought of, as you seem to suggest, as an almost infinitely broad and causally irrespective concept, of course it will be unable to offer rational ethical guidance; but the concept is far more specific, and relates to ideas such as the frustration of autonomy, security, basic human rights etc. So, under the harm principle, as long as your actions do not frustrate these interests in Bill or George (presuming you are not, by these actions, actively and directly defending your own such interests from frustration by these specific individuals), they are perfectly permissible. But of course, a means whereby child pornography, terrorism and other similarly harmful activities are able to operate relatively unhindered, does, directly or indirectly, violate some or all of the core tenets of this principle. It is also worth noting here that the harm principle is neutral to law, politics and economics; it is strictly a foundation of ethics.

I neither hold nor assert that all forms of government control should be tolerated. However, in an attempt to clarify my argument let me ask you to consider the following consequence:

  • C1: The unintentional provision of an authority with the ability, but not necessarily the intention, to abuse a power in such a way as to suppress legitimate free speech and distribution of content; two of the most vital means of effective democracy.

And secondly, the following two sets of circumstances:

  • Sc1: This set of circumstances harms people. In allowing an authority to prevent Sc1 we unavoidably invoke the consequence C1.
  • Sc2: This set of circumstances harms people. In allowing an authority to prevent Sc2 we unavoidably invoke the consequence C1.

If we simply hold that the consequence C1 is absolutely unacceptable, then one should assert that both Sc1 and Sc2 be tolerated despite the harm they cause to people. However, if one does not believe that such harm to people is worth such an absolute guarantee of free speech and distribution of content then one should assert that both Sc1 and Sc2 be authoritatively suppressed.

The following are descriptions as to what these two sets of circumstances are:

  • A: Child pornography, terrorism, etc. operating through electronic channels.
  • B: The acts of rape and murder.

I will let it remain unclear however, as to which set of circumstances (Sc1 or Sc2) definitions A or B pertain.

A Critique of the Freenet Philosophy – A Reply by Ian Clarke

P1: Total and absolute free flow of information will result in some amount of harm to people. This result will be indirectly causal in some cases, such as the case of child pornography – It would be difficult to argue that the existence of an undetectable method of distribution for such material would not increase the demand for it, and this demand increase supply; a supply which inherently harms people.

Its not central to my argument, but have you considered the possibility that the existence of child pornography might act, with a pedophile, in a manner similar to that in which methadone acts with a heroin addict?

In other words, have you considered the possibility that access to child pornography might actually reduce the likelihood that a pedophile will assault a child?

I do not claim that this is the case, but I do not take it for given that it isn’t either – and it demonstrates that even this most emotive of issues is not black and white.

In other, more direct cases, for instance those of free flow of information for terrorists, drug cartels, prostitution rings, etc., such a channel would make these activities feasible to entertain without fear of legal consequence and infinitely more difficult if not impossible to detect and effectively suppress; again resulting harm to people.

It is true that bad people could use any tool, Freenet included, to do bad things. You have not shown that the harm caused by these bad things is greater than the good that comes from good people using that tool to do good things.

P2: [The Millsian harm principle:] is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. – John Stuart Mill – On Liberty (1869)

I don’t find this principle particularly persuasive.

If one was to accept this principle, or at least the application of this principle as you seek to use it, George W Bush (for example) can legitimately take action against any individual that criticizes him – since such criticism could be said to harm him (specifically, harm his chances of reelection).

There many ways one could harm someone that are perfectly legal. For example, I could harm Bill Gates by creating software that competes favorably with his software and giving it away. Despite this, it would not be appropriate for the government to prevent me from harming Bill Gates in this way.

What P2 misses is that there is no universal “harm”, often one person must be harmed to protect another. The question is which will lead to the least harm overall. My argument is that the benefits of making government censorship impossible far outweigh any disadvantages.

E1: The only way rape and murder could be suppressed is by providing an authority with the ability to monitor and control behaviour.
E2: Since supplying such an ability will invariably provide that authority with the opportunity to abuse it, by controlling arbitrary behaviour (including free speech and distribution of content), it cannot be allowed.
EC1: Therefore, rape and murder should not be suppressed.

You are correct that some forms of government control are tolerable, but it does not then follow that all forms of government control, including control over our ability to communicate, must be tolerated.

Government control over the means of communication is different to other forms of government control due to the nature of how governments in democratic countries acquire the right to exercise any control in the first place.

Governments in democratic countries gain their legitimacy from the fact that they were chosen and are answerable to those they govern. If such governments have the ability to control the ability of those they govern to acquire and exchange information, then they have the ability to prevent the population from holding them to account, and indeed, prevent the population from knowing that they are being prevented from holding them to account.

Thus, to safeguard the legitimacy of a democratic government, that government must be prevented from controlling the information its citizens have access to.

B: Reject the harm principle and in turn reject all forms of effective controls of liberty.

No, I reject one form of effective control of liberty for reasons outlined above and in Freenet’s philosophy document. You cannot imply from this that I reject all forms of control on liberty, and thus your argument collapses.

A Critique of the Freenet Philosophy

From the Freenet FAQ, Section 1: “Freenet is free software designed to ensure true freedom of communication over the Internet. It allows anybody to publish and read information with complete anonymity. Nobody controls Freenet, not even its creators, meaning that the system is not vulnerable to manipulation or shutdown. Freenet is also very efficient in how it deals with information, adaptively replicating content in response to demand. For more information, please read What Is Freenet.”

This afternoon I wrote an email to Ian Clarke, the main developer of Freenet and the author of the philosophy behind it. This message included the argument below; in which I highlight what I believe to be fatal problems with the justifications presented for such a project. I suggest you at least read the Freenet Philosophy page before continuing.


Preface: To move for the total and absolute removal of censorship or to directly provide a means to cause censorship to be unenforceable, as with the Freenet philosophy, is an ethically indefensible stance, or so I will argue.

“Belief in democracy, however, like any other belief, may be carried to the point where it becomes fanatical, and therefore harmful.”
Bertrand Russell – Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind (1950)

  • P1: Total and absolute free flow of information will result in some amount of harm to people. This result will be indirectly causal in some cases, such as the case of child pornography – It would be difficult to argue that the existence of an undetectable method of distribution for such material would not increase the demand for it, and this demand increase supply; a supply which inherently harms people. In other, more direct cases, for instance those of free flow of information for terrorists, drug cartels, prostitution rings, etc., such a channel would make these activities feasible to entertain without fear of legal consequence and infinitely more difficult if not impossible to detect and effectively suppress; again resulting harm to people.

For the sake of argument I will take the Millsian approach to liberty, an approach which seems to be the most liberal, generally accepted and closest to the Freenet philosophy from which it is possible to work. Although it is worth noting at this point that there are also strong arguments for even stricter controls on liberty. The basic framework of the Millsian model is the harm principle:

  • P2: “[The Millsian harm principle:] is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
    John Stuart Mill – On Liberty (1869)

  • C: At least some control of liberty, including that of free speech and distribution of content, by a government, is necessary.

Of course, if you accept P1, which I do not think it would be reasonable to reject since the Freenet website itself makes connotations to these consequences being necessary evils, you certainly do not agree with P2 and C. This would seem given as you hold that in providing an authority with the power to uphold the harm principle, one must take the unacceptable risk that such an authority may abuse that power. These objections can be summarised with the following argument:

  • F1: For an authority to uphold the harm principle it is necessary for that authority to be attributed the power to successfully monitor and control behaviour.
  • F2: The attribution of these powers would, by necessary consequence, make it at least possible for such powers to be abused to prevent legitimate freedom of speech or distribution of content.
  • FC1: Since this is an unacceptable risk, the harm principle should not be upheld.

The problem with such an argument seems to stem from the fact that any authority given the task of upholding the harm principle must, consequentially, have at least the ability, if not necessarily the intention, to suppress legitimate speech or distribution of content; two of the most vital requirements for effective democracy. But in rejecting the harm principle for the reasons stated in F2 and FC1, and given that you hold that some level of human harm to be an acceptable factor as a means to the end of absolute assurance of legitimate liberty, it would be very difficult to reason as to why you do not subscribe to the following:

  • E1: The only way rape and murder could be suppressed is by providing an authority with the ability to monitor and control behaviour.
  • E2: Since supplying such an ability will invariably provide that authority with the opportunity to abuse it, by controlling arbitrary behaviour (including free speech and distribution of content), it cannot be allowed.
  • EC1: Therefore, rape and murder should not be suppressed.

This seems to leave you with two very distinct alternatives:

  • A: Support the harm principle (to some extent if not absolutely) and in turn the attribution of powers to an authority, powers that it is at least possible will be abused to prevent legitimate freedom of speech or distribution of content.
  • B: Reject the harm principle and in turn reject all forms of effective controls of liberty.

If you choose A the problem for the Freenet philosophy is self-evident. If you choose B, as a means of affirming the principle that an absolute guarantee of free speech is all important and overrides the rights of some people, it is not possible for a society to enforce any conventional models of human rights. To do so would require an authority to be granted the necessary power to achieve this end; a power that such a principle of absolute guarantee deems unacceptable.