Hey Mister, She's My Sister


An excellent Jim Henley post in which he explains that he's a "my sister" libertarian:

Nobody worth performing the Heimlich Maneuver on is going to tell the police they saw their sister smoking pot. Am I okay with my sister going to jail if she sells some pills or her favors? Do I think my sister or brother should be dragged into court if she drains her field or he hires too many people of the wrong color? No. So I have no business supporting a regime that subjects other people's siblings to those things. Would I have to agree that if my sister drowned my niece, or my brother defrauded credit card companies or my mother burned down her building for the insurance, that they should be subject to arrest and imprisonment. Yes, I'm afraid. And a note to you smartypants readers: Not all of the examples in this item have been hypotheticals. So I really do mean it.

Whole thing's worth reading. Me, I was ruined by analytic philosophy, so I have a weakness for elaborate justificatory schema involving four stage processes and bargaining positions embodying conceptions of justice. But I've got my own rule of thumb as well. Orwell once wrote of W.H. Auden (a bit unfairly) that his "brand of amoralism is only possible, if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled." Well, call mine the "you hold the gun test": Would you make X a crime if you had to go and get the violators to cough up the fine or accompany you to jail at gunpoint? (Assume this is safe for you, since otherwise I suppose you might get a perverse result re: the most violent…)

ADDENDUM: This is actually an old post I noticed because Catallarchy recently linked it.

NEXT: Funeral March

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  1. I wasn’t familiar with the school of “analytiic philosophy”.

  2. I think it is a school in Boston that John Kerry went to but flunked out!

  3. I’d be careful about this standard. People often have a real blindspot in regards to their family. Consider the fact that Nichol’s family is defending him.


    On the other hand, I’ve always loved P.J. O’Rourke’s “Shoot your grandmother” test to determine if state spending may be considered just: would you shoot your grandmother for refusing to pay taxes to support this spending? Since taxes are collected by force, lethal if needed,it is a fair test.

  4. “Analytic philosophy” is the dominant tradition in most American (and British) philosophy departments. It tends to emphasize logical rigor and the clarification of what terms mean and how they’re used. The major figures are Wittgenstein, Russell, the Vienna Circle, Moore, Frege, Quine, Ryle, Tarski, Ayer, Putnam, Lewis, etc. It’s often contrasted with the “Continental” style more often found in European universities (Foucault, Derrida, Jameson, Kristeva, etc.) where the major works are more likely to be more sociological, historical, literary.

  5. I’m with Eryk. Notice that Henley subtly moves the goal posts when he compares telling the police your sister smokes pot with agreeing that your family members should be subject to punishment for doing bad things to others. Note too that marijuana possession is, thankfully, a much lesser offense than the ones in his counter-example. Plus, one of his counter-examples involves a family member hurting another family member. Apples to apples, my friend. Unless you can convince someone that your sister selling crack to pregnant women should not face prosecution, this example will only work as long as it takes for someone to see they’re being hoodwinked. Ah, if only things were so simple….

  6. Am I the only one who noticed the post was from 3 years ago?

  7. I was an analytic phil. major myself. I don’t know how it is in general but where I studied, the continental tradition dominated. I remember a few Sharks and Jets style intellectual streetfights with the European tradition students cornering us and trying to deduce the special theory of relativity from the social structure of the Zurich patent office.

    Of course we weren’t impressed, knowing them to be mindless intentional systems whose collective propositional attitudes could be modeled by everyone in China passing around symbols written on small slips of paper.

  8. I find that when peope defend family members accused of horrible crimes, it’s usually because they can’t make themseslves believe that their loved one did it.

  9. You failed to see my joke, Julian. You misspelled “analytic” in the main post.

  10. Pavel-
    I think that’s relatively unusual in the U.S., though my impression may be skewed, since I was at the super-analytic NYU.

  11. Sadly, I have known people who would (and in some cases did) turn in their pot-smoking relatives to “save” them from the fate-worse-than-death of drug abuse. Worst of all are the children home after a day of school anti-drug indoctrination, who rat on their parents.

    (Remember the guy in “1984” who was turned in by his kid? “Child Heroes,” indeed…)

  12. This twisted sister argument proves way too much. I can’t see turning my sister in for petty theft, cheating on her taxes or a DUI that resulted in no accident or one causing only minor property damage. That doesn’t mean I ought to support the legalization of these activities. All it if somebody has to prosecute my sister, it probably shouldn’t be be.

  13. Note too that marijuana possession is, thankfully, a much lesser offense than the ones in his counter-example.

    fyodor, that’s kind of the whole point.

  14. I wouldn’t turn in my brother for defrauding credit card companies, but I would turn in someone else’s brother. It’s a loyalty thing.

  15. RC Dean,

    that’s kind of the whole point.

    Really? Henley’s arguing for the status quo? At best, the operative part of your statement is “kind of.”

    I do, however, see that I forgot about his part about “selling pills or her favors.” So there’s less a little sleight of hand than I was previously thinking. But I’d still say he’s got it predominantly backwards. He and I would make the distinction he’s making because we’re libertarians rather than vice versa. Some people think turning in drug addicts is good for them. And how people would react to their kin doing “bad” probably varies radically from person to person and is hardly based on (wait for it)… Reason.

    Sigh… all that said, maybe there’s an ounce of truth to what he’s saying. But I tend to doubt there’s enough to use this to seriously make the libertarian case to anyone. Maybe it would be an interesting experiment to try on the populace at large…?

  16. JIMWALSH, your example is not the worst, IMHO.

    Worse is parents taking their own kid who they discover has a dimebag stashed under his matress and allowing one of those BootCamp Teen Behavior Modification companies to forcibly remove the kid from the home. Then they cage him in a facility with no governmental oversight for 6-12 months or more.

  17. A new low for libertarian thinking? No, but it’s getting there. I’m sure Henley’s sister is A-OK and she’s well aware of how to water her field. It’s all those other people’s sisters I’m worried about.

    While Henley (unlike many others) was one of the few bloggers who returned the emails I sent out suggesting a meeting during my Blogging Across America tour (he was tied up with a Civil War re-creation), his post reads like Homer Simpson doing Kevin Kostner’s Field of Dreams bit.

  18. I wouldn’t turn in my brother for defrauding credit card companies…. – Dogzilla

    I wouldn’t either, at least not before I took a stab at convincing him to make restitution. If one of my family members smoked the occasional joint, I’d tell him to be quiet about it, but I wouldn’t try to prevent it. If he had any kind of addiction, I’d try to get him to go get some help for it. I’d certainly try to dissuade a sibling from serving intoxicants to pregnant women, even perfectly legal booze. If Mom-to-be was just doing the shopping, I’d have to assume that the martini fixings were meant for her consumption, and I’d leave everyone involved the hell alone.

    And if any of you lot get anywhere near my sisters….


  19. Oops!

    ….fixings weren’t meant for her…


  20. So Jim’s sister drowned his niece?

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