Max Borders announced today that he’s signing off early from the blogging world. I don’t know if that’s a direct result of Matthew Barganier’s post on anti-war.com encouraging people to write to his employer, the Institute for Humane Studies, in response to Max’s posts. I haven’t talked to Max or anyone else at IHS about it (and I certainly hope that an organization so committed to the free exchange of ideas would not have put pressure on him). Whatever the reason, I think it’s a damn shame that he’s quit.
Full disclosure: Max and I are friends, we used to be coworkers, and I occassionally write for the IHS websites he maintains.
Barganier’s original post is here. He links to Max’s post and quotes him as saying, “If boiling people alive best served the interests of the American people, then it would neither be moral or immoral.” Then, a few paragraphs later, Barganier says, “Feel free to express your disgust to Max Borders’ employers.” The sentence is linked to the IHS contact page.
There are a number of things wrong with this. First among them is that Max’s quote was taken quite out of context. Here’s the full paragraph:
If boiling people alive best served the interests of the American people, then it would neither be moral or immoral. It would just be grotesque, or indecent, or harsh. But since it doesn’t have any strategic value, we don’t boil people or nuke them. A “sentimental should” means that most of us find such behavior unsavory, even barbaric–but it doesn’t match up against any grand moral standard etched into a Libertarian Rosetta Stone. To momentarily digress into pop-philosophical obscurantism, it’s intersubjectively “wrong,” not objectively wrong (i.e. politically circumscribed).
Max is making an abstract point about how morals are defined. He’s not saying, “You know, I think we really ought to consider boiling people alive.” In fact, he says that would be grotesque and pointless. His argument is that it’s an issue that isn’t defined by his contractarian moral framework. That’s a philosophical stance with which one can agree or disagree, but no one reading the quote on Barganier’s weblog would have any idea it’s what Max was talking about.
A second problem with Barganier’s post is the argument he makes before directing people to IHS:
Some issues are beyond debate for libertarians, and even if you don’t count preemptive war among those issues, you damn well better include the impermissibility of boiling people alive. Vegans don’t debate skinning baby seals. Libertarians don’t debate boiling people alive. Period.
I dissent! Libertarians, and anyone else for that matter, can debate whatever the hell they want. Should torture be permitted in exceptional circumstances, perhaps as a necessary means of getting information about an imminent terrorist attack that would take thousands of lives? That’s a question libertarians could reasonably disagree about. Similarly, I’d expect vegans to debate whether they could kill a seal if they were shipwrecked in Alaska with no other source of food. Both are examples of unlikely scenarios, but people should not fear posing them at the risk of being drummed out of their jobs or ideological communities. Forbidding edgy questions is a terribly illiberal way to support inquiry.
Which brings me to my last point. Barganier’s suggestion that his readers complain to IHS crosses a line that bloggers should be very wary of crossing. Barganier is in the fairly unique position of getting paid to blog. The rest of us have regular jobs and do our blogging on the side. We do our best to clarify that our views are our own and do not represent those of our employers. We enjoy having a public space where we don’t have to be as concerned with decorum as we are while working at the office or writing for the think tank. Most of all, we enjoy being a part of a community of bloggers engaged in the free exchange of ideas. Friendly disagreement and unfriendly flame wars are risks we gladly accept. Having a fellow blogger try to get us fired or reprimanded is a whole different story. That kind of behavior bodes poorly for all of us and could have a chillling effect on our lively discourse if practiced too often.
Barganier responds to this kind of criticism with this challenge:
If I were still a teacher, would it be unethical for people to contact my employers about opinions I expressed on the World Wide Web? What if I wrote the following?
“If molesting children best served the interests of the American people, then it would neither be moral or immoral.”
Think that would be fair game?
That depends, Matthew. If you were using hyperbole to make an abstract point in a philosophical debate, then no. I certainly wouldn’t quote you out of context and send a letter to the PTA. On the other hand, if you were actually advocating or seriously proposing that children should be molested, then that would be fair game. Your directing of readers to IHS lands on the wrong side of the analogy.
None of this is to say that I believe employers should take a completely hands off approach to their blogging employees. Delta Airlines recently fired a flight attendant for posting suggestive photos of herself in uniform and I think they were completely justified in doing so. Similarly, I have no objection to think tanks telling their blogging analysts to be somewhat mindful of the institution’s image. Those are pragmatic decisions that employers can handle on their own. Fortunately, most weblogs have a relatively small readership and most employers pretty much let them be. Barganier skewed that perspective when he suggested that his readers “express their disgust” to Max’s employers, creating the appearance of a PR problem where none previously existed. That’s a low tactic for one blogger to use against another.
Libertarians disagree on a lot of things, but we in the libertarian intellectual/blogging community should at least agree that open argument and inquiry is a wonderful thing. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the free-wheeling world of bloggers will become more staid as it grows and matures, but we should treasure it while it lasts and do our best to preserve it. Matthew Barganier has done the complete opposite. On Friday, he directed his readers to complain to the employer of a blogger with whom he took issue. On Tuesday, that blogger abandoned his site. Well, congratulations to Matthew. The blogosphere is a tiny bit less libertarian for his efforts.
[Cross-posted on The Agitator.]