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Silver and Golden Rule Societies

Monday, October 19, 2015 22:06
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Aggressive violence opposes freedom of action. This is a central libertarian tenet. What then are we to make of non-violent means of controlling an individual’s beliefs, such as methodical inculcation of religious, nationalistic, or superstitious beliefs? Do these methods also oppose freedom? How do we characterize such methods and contrast them with violent methods of control?

I argue that people endure both losses due to physical violence (p-losses) and losses due to being instilled with beliefs that go against their own interests (b-losses.) Libertarian theory focuses on the p-losses because we can identify physical violence and because it implies an external influence that a person does not voluntarily choose. Libertarian theory neglects b-losses because they are hard to identify (we can’t get inside people’s heads) and because we think of values as being subjective.

Nonetheless, the formation of beliefs is important as are b-losses. Many articles implicitly accept the idea that they exist. Many of us write in order to educate, persuade, and change the belief systems of people who we think are holding harmful beliefs that are not in their own interests. We may benefit from recognizing them in our theories.

Violent gains and losses

To get at these ideas, it helps to have a clear understanding of basics. I define a gain for individual i as an increase in i’s utility. There are two kinds of gain as classified by the means of obtaining it: violent and non-violent. A gain by violence occurs when individual i gains by using physical violence on individual j without j’s permission or approval. The set of physically violent acts includes using the threat of violence and engaging in acts that physically affect j’s property.

I define someone who uses physical violence to achieve gain as a criminal. Robbers, burglars, killers, and rapists are, among others, criminals. Since the acts of individuals associated with governments and states frequently involve violently obtained gains, these organizations are criminal. Varying degrees of criminality then attach to numbers of people in the affected society who support and/or participate in the State’s actions.

Any violent action visited upon j that j does not permit or approve of, or that is against j’s will, lowers j’s utility. I call a lowering of utility a loss for person j. A lowering of utility created by physical violence I call a p-loss. Gains that are not violently obtained are defined as non-violent gains. Non-violent gains do not cause p-losses. Only violent gains cause p-losses.

Non-violent gains may, however, cause losses of a different sort. The main type discussed below is a loss imposed by controlling a person’s beliefs. I term this type of loss a b-loss.

Libertarian Silver Rule society

I define a libertarian Silver Rule society as a set of people all of whose actions are non-violent. Everyone in this society follows the libertarian Silver Rule. The libertarian Silver Rule states “Don’t physically do to others what you don’t want physically done to you.” In such a society, each person does not want to have his utility lowered by the violent actions of others, i.e., he does not want to experience p-losses. He therefore chooses not to gain by imposing p-losses on others.

No societies have been or are libertarian Silver Rule societies. In our world, people gain by either violent or non-violent means. They can gain by not imposing p-losses on others, but they also can gain by imposing p-losses on others. A person can produce gains in either manner. His choice depends on the costs to him of the alternative methods of gaining. Person j has an incentive to halt i’s violent gain, because it is imposing a p-loss on j. But if his costs of stopping the p-loss exceed his p-loss, he lives with the p-loss.

Libertarian freedom and criminality

A person is defined as libertarian free when no p-losses are imposed on him by other persons. Libertarian freedom is the condition of a person being libertarian free. Libertarian freedom of a person varies in degree according to the extent of p-losses the person has.

Criminals reduce the libertarian freedom of their victims. Criminals impose p-losses on other people.

Criminality has complex effects. (1) Most simply, the criminals gain and the victims lose. (2) The victims protect themselves. This is costly, but it holds criminals in check and limits their gains. (3) The victims have less incentive to produce gains, because some part of them is taken by criminals. (4) The victims have a greater incentive to engage in actions or produce those goods that the criminals cannot as easily impose p-losses on. (5) The greater the p-losses imposed on the victims, the greater their incentive to stop the criminals. (6) Criminals experience diminishing returns to crime. The greater the p-losses they impose on victims and the more that victims resist, the more difficult it is to impose p-losses.

So-called positive rights for goods like medical care necessarily impose p-losses. They are therefore incompatible with libertarian freedom.

It is possible to argue that libertarian freedom is freedom, that is, freedom cannot involve p-losses. I will not argue that case here.

Belief control

We can think beyond the libertarian paradigm to a broader category of losses, namely, losses created by external control of beliefs, or b-losses. There are two cases. In one case the utility of the victim is lowered by seemingly non-violent means, but behind the scenes lies violence that enables the control of beliefs. In this case, the b-losses are the form that the p-losses take. They are not possible without the underlying violence. In a second case, the victim’s utility is lowered and there is no behind-the-scenes violence. This case lacks the criterion of physical violence by which p-losses are identified. It is by nature more difficult to identify. Furthermore, it may be hard to distinguish the natural acquisition of beliefs that induce losses from beliefs intentionally instilled by others.

When there are b-losses, the victim’s utility is lowered by control techniques that affect his beliefs. The person develops beliefs that limit his choices or limit his ability to seek or take advantage of opportunities or that lead him to choose actions that do not benefit him. These beliefs are instilled into the person by others. Sometimes they do not have his best interests at heart.

The case of b-losses should not be confused with a lowering of utility that arises when market exchange values change. Changes in values of other people as expressed in non-violent or free exchange continually affect the utility of a given person, sometimes raising it, sometimes lowering it. These changes do not interfere with libertarian freedom. For example, a rise in crude oil prices lowers the utility of an automobile owner while raising the utility of an oil well owner. In free markets, these alterations in utility come about without p-losses and without b-losses. In passing, note that attempts to alter the outcomes of these non-violent processes, such as price controls, necessarily decrease libertarian freedom and impose p-losses.

Non-violent gains

I divide non-violent gains into two categories according to the means of obtaining them: controlling and non-controlling. We can also use synonyms like dominating and non-dominating, or domineering and non-domineering. To control, dominate, or domineer is to rule someone or exercise power over them by using mental or emotional means.

In case one mentioned earlier, gains by violence facilitate seemingly non-violent control of beliefs. Criminals can extend the losses they impose and enhance their gains by using means in which the violence is not apparent. Suppose, for example, the State has a degree of control over communications or information. If the victim hears or sees undesired messages while communicating or obtaining information, his beliefs and emotions can be influenced. It is typical of human nature to be affected by messages even when one does not want to be. Only with costly effort can the person resist or filter out messages.

The most important instance of seemingly non-violent control undergirded by violence is state schools. A state’s educational system combines violent means (forcing children into schools and preventing them from working) with psychological domination. It strives to inculcate beliefs and preferences. It strives to control thought and behavior. Moreover, it often has the full cooperation of parents.

Gains by violence are often accompanied by propaganda, which is a psychological means of influencing the victim. The novel 1984 pictures the Party’s gains obtained violently and simultaneously maintained by relatively non-violent methods of psychological control. When these fail, the Party resorts to violent methods.

Religious examples

Beyond the State and beyond gains by violence, an individual faces society’s institutions and methods of authority and the control methods used by non-state individuals and groups. They can control and dominate the individual. One of the prime examples is religious institutions. For example, Laurence Vance’s article “Killing in the Name of the Lord” shows that the attitudes and beliefs of some American Christians toward the Iraq War, the State, Muslims, warfare, and killing are influenced by their religious training. It is impossible to prove that their utility has been lowered by their belief system and that they are experiencing b-losses. Yet we may justifiably believe and allege this. For example, Vance says that “Christians have been deceived” in their support of conservatives. He says that the military “is held in great esteem by too many Christians.” He says that Christians are “under the impression that Christians should support the war in Iraq because Christians should always do what the government says,” adding that Christians “who hold to that opinion are not thinking.” The Christianity of some people is “warped.” Support of the war in Iraq for Israel’s sake “defies comprehension.” And it is a “great mystery” why Christians are concerned with the state. Most of these comments indict the belief system of war-supporting Christians. And they imply that these Christians are acting against their own properly understood Christian interests. Their utility would rise if they better understood a few things or were not deceived or would think.

But we can ask why they have these mistaken beliefs? Partly because of faulty religious training and partly because of the State’s training.

None of this is criticism of Vance’s analysis. Just the opposite. He called it in detail the way he saw it. I am construing his reactions to the Christian militarism wing as supporting the idea that there is such a thing as non-violent b-losses.

Or to take another example, consider Bill Barnwell’s article “The Anti-War Christian Right Must Speak Up” in which he observes that pro-peace arguments are maligned by many conservative Christians as dangerous for the Church and America. “Why do they so ardently believe this? Because that’s what their leaders tell them to believe,” he suggests. No clearer statement could be made that non-violent institutions control individual belief. Barnwell also implies that the militaristic Christians are acting against their own interests when he says “Where are the pastors making the case that the current militarism is actually detrimental to the Church and the Christian movement?”

In my terms, Barnwell is saying that many Christian leaders have taken the pro-war stance. They have apparently found fertile ground to plow among their followers. I take this as an example of non-violent b-losses. The beliefs of the followers are being controlled or at least heavily influenced. They would be better off or have higher utility if, as Barnwell hopes, the peace-loving pastors would speak up. They would then discover that supporting the war is inimical to their own movement.

Silver Rule society

I define a person as being fully free when neither p-losses nor b-losses are imposed on that person. Such freedom is uncommon. Attaining it requires a major individual effort.

I define a (full) Silver Rule society as a set of people none of whose actions impose p-losses and b-losses. This is more demanding than the libertarian Silver Rule society because it requires no b-losses. In such a society, each person follows the Silver Rule. The Silver Rule states “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you.” Each person in a Silver Rule society does not want to have his utility lowered by either the violent actions or the controlling actions of others. He does not want to experience p-losses or b-losses. He therefore chooses not to gain by imposing p-losses or b-losses on others. No societies have been or are Silver Rule societies.

The Silver Rule has the libertarian Silver Rule as a special case in which only physical actions and p-losses are mentioned.

Golden Rule society

In a Golden Rule society, each person follows the Golden Rule: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” My purpose in mentioning this is not to interpret the Golden Rule in its broader religious context as a man of religion might do. It is to place the earlier analysis in a broader context.

The Golden Rule implies the Silver Rule. If you would that a man should not steal from you, then you should not steal from him. If you would that a man not kill you, then do not kill a man. Unlike the Silver Rule, the Golden Rule encourages positive actions. If you would like to be listened to by other men, then listen to them. If you would like to be helped in a time of need, then help others in a time of need. If you would like to be treated fairly, then treat others fairly.

I interpret the Golden Rule in non-religious terms to suggest that person i’s utility will be enhanced by acting toward person j as he prefers j to act toward him. If person i values freedom or dislikes p-losses and b-losses, then he stands a better chance of avoiding losses by not imposing losses on others. The idea is other people will tend to reciprocate. Surely if person i does the opposite, if he imposes losses on others, he cannot expect them not to react to avoid those losses. And those reactions, which can involve a range of behaviors (avoidance, ostracism, demands for restitution, punishment) will not be to i’s liking. Some of them will decrease his freedom. Others will decrease his opportunities.


When beliefs are acquired accidentally or without design, the learning process is consistent with a free society. But when institutions and groups instill harmful beliefs, even if by non-violent means, then we should recognize that this is a harmful process that goes against the full freedom of an individual. Full freedom occurs when a person is neither physically coerced nor inculcated with beliefs that go against his own interest. Although full freedom is at present an unattainable ideal, it is a useful ideal. It helps us understand the activities of those around us who impose various types of losses on us as they seek gains. It helps us understand that even non-violent structures of authority can harm us if we blindly expose ourselves to the authority of leaders.

Michael S. Rozeff is a professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo. This article originally appeared at and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

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