The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

What Is Right for Those You Love Is Right for All


Trial of Titus Manlius’s Son

The Roman Consul Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus was at war with the Latins. He instructed that anyone who disobeyed orders would be executed. His own son, and some companions left their sentry posts to skirmish with some enemies, defeated them, and returned to his father with the spoils. Seeing that his son had left his post (leaving a sentry post is particularly bad), he had him executed for disobeying orders.

Now, if you think Manlius did the wrong thing, we disagree.

“If you would do it to your son, daughter, spouse, or parent, you should do it to anyone.”

This is a fundamental rule. If someone random does something, and you would punish or reward them, then if you don’t act the same to those you care about, you are unsuited to have any authority, private or public.

Everyone has a father and mother. If you’d kill someone else’s child, or imprison them, or otherwise hurt them, then you must do the same to your child in identical circumstances. The same is true of reward: If you’d reward your child, and someone else is under your authority, they must be rewarded the same.

This is true beyond immediate authority, though: If you believe that people should be killed if they murder, you must support that for those you care about. If three crimes, no matter how petty, means 20 years in prison, then if someone you care about commits three crimes, they, too, must serve those 20 years.

Anything you would not do to someone you love in terms of punishment or reward, you cannot do or support doing to anyone else. If Manlius would have executed anyone else for disobeying orders, he had to execute his son.

The application of this to larger issues, like those who vote for war not sending their children, and those who will never be affected by a law voting for it are left, for the moment, to readers to work through.



When the Profit Motive Is Unnecessary or Harmful


Open Thread


  1. Jason

    This assumes a universal level of “nuclear family love” that doesn’t exist, at least not between fathers and sons.

    Perhaps that’s the root of all our problems…

  2. Ian Welsh

    Yes, that’s also an issue, thus the silver and golden rules.

  3. Jason

    For the record, I don’t get along with my father, and I have no children.


    This reminds me a bit of Alan Watts’ take on the biblical commandments, the idea being that they were never really meant to be “obeyed,” rather they’re intended to illuminate the obvious fact that they can’t for any length of time be adhered to. This is why it’s silly for many to enter into a dedicated monogamous relationship before the age of forty, at minimum. The divorce rate obviously bears this out.

    A person who could hold to the requirements that Ian suggests for any serious length of time isn’t wholly human. I suppose the retort to this would be that that’s why power should be limited in scope and time.

    Ultimately, it’s why there should be no “power” at all. Power requires standardization, or results from it, and as a commenter over at NC recently noted, “standardization proves inhuman and disorienting.”

  4. Mark Level

    I certainly understand why a public official with Torquatus’ power was consistent in walking the walk, since he had talked the talk. Obviously the Elites who run things in the western world now (& I assume elsewhere, but don’t know for a fact) would not for one moment consider living up to this standard. Dishonest as they are, I will even give them the credit that 90% of them wouldn’t even publicly advocate such a position, knowing that they would never live up to it . . . I’m going to largely agree with Jason. While I think that those of us who are responsible adults should have ethics to follow, I know from studying certain Sufi thinkers that the application of ethical guidelines generally does need to account for specifics of the situation, including social contacts and realities. I think one of the friends of the notorious British spy Kim Philby said something to the effect that he hoped he’d be ready to betray the state before betraying his friend. (I could be mistaken about the source of that quote.) I endorse that idea whatever the source; life is unpredictable & chaotic often and at the best of times. One should not follow any conceptual, abstract algorithm for acting in an unthinking way, without considering concrete as well as abstract ideas or (shudder) beliefs, with a minimum of humility and respect for actual circumstances & context.

  5. Trinity

    Non-egalitarian families by definition are dysfunctional. Whether the problem is one of the parents is a drunk, a narcissist, a drug user, or just plain malignant/mental illness of another kind, any family with one of these as the head of the family means unequal distribution of everything good and bad, such as love and support versus withholding of love and constant punishment.

    The reverse is also true: a dysfunctional family is non-egalitarian. And there is almost no-way to make a narcissist a human again. (The only person who might succeed at that is the narcissist, but for various reasons, they don’t want to change. They get a kick out of having a scapegoat handy, and watching their children fight over scraps.)

    It will “take a village” (and a few handy ice floes) to enact any real change in our circumstances. That means WE have to change. It sucks, I know. A vaccine against narcissism, etc. would be so much easier. But you cannot change a drunk, or even a psychopath. The only person you can change is yourself. It’s like one of my favorite jokes:

    Q: “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb.”
    A: Only one. But the lightbulb really has to want to change.

    Back in the early 80s when I was a very unhappy battered wife, I noted several things. One, my mother didn’t care, not one bit. Even when the bruises began to show. Two, his friends didn’t care, even the wives. Three: the government didn’t care. There was no shelter for women back then. I literally had nowhere to go.

    We need to keep improving in this regard, and in a way that doesn’t require or involve the government. If that means reconfiguring what it means to be a father and what it means to be a son, then that’s exactly what we need to do. As Ian noted, people want to be good and do good things. This entire society is sick (because our leaders are sick) and the role models we are told to emulate (Musk, Kardashians) are either toxic, or completely unrealistic. The only people who can (or will) change any of this is us.

  6. bruce wilder

    I saw the post and I thought to myself, “you should be a contrarian even if it is a lonely stance”, but apparently every commenter wanted to be a contrarian to some degree. U’all r no fun when I cannot even be against anyone.

    One issue with the golden rule, the silver rule or any rule is, when and where do we need a rule, per se? Who benefits from a rule? And, why? What does having a rule accomplish?

    When I was in college in the Paleolithic, I was asked to write an essay on the central dilemma on Melville’s Billy Budd: whether sweet, innocent, pretty Billy must hang to vindicate a ill-applied rule.

    If I was advising Torquatus, I would gone with “no harm, no foul”. It does not make sense to me to deprive a young man, brave and patriotic, of life for a failing without consequence. It is a bit of my skepticism about the value of arbitrary rules. I like rules, do not get me wrong. I would fire a restaurant worker who did not wash his hands in the lavatory. But I would at least inquire into whether the vacated sentry post was in fact a risk to the camp in the particular circumstance known to sentry. And, assuming there was in fact no loss of life from that disobediance, I would question the proportionality of a death penalty. Good governance from an official authority requires, in my mind, careful attention to circumstance. Yes, “my son” would not be relevant detail, but it should not be a justification either for an uncareful inquiry and the narcissism of “self-sacrifice” from the father.

    More problematic to my mind is official performance to promote a public good. For the Romans, I imagine this myth served to illustrate the severe demands of Republican virtue and not the abstract value of impersonal rules, though the two may be entangled.

    In the neo-liberal apocalypse, selfishness is so pervasive and the existence of “society” so often in doubt, we lose track of what it means to be corrupt even while corruption becomes ubiquitous, even universal. What does official authority to represent and arbitrate on behalf of a public interest?

    Something more than a silver rule is necessary to answer.

  7. Astrid

    Sentry duty is serious business. Your country can live or die based on the performance of the sentries guarding over the camp or a city. Executing for failure is a hard but necessary law for a hard warrior Roman Republic.

    The point of having everybody follow the law, including the leader and their loved ones, is to ensure that only a few good laws are on the books and those are respected and followed by everyone.

    The US today is the opposite of this, endless laws that are not respected or understood by anyone, violated with impunity by the powerful and used to smash the poor and unweary. It’s so mind bogglingly wrong on every level that my mind goes blank just trying to picture it all.

    Damn this country.

  8. mago

    @bw “I would fire a restaurant worker who did not wash his hands in the lavatory.”
    Good luck with that one Bruce. You’d lose your restaurant, which you really wouldn’t want in the first place, employees and patrons all.

  9. Everyone has a father and mother. If you’d kill someone else’s child, or imprison them, or otherwise hurt them, then you must do the same to your child in identical circumstances.

    Speaking of a certain former Senator from Delaware ….

  10. someofparts

    Trinity – Really sorry you had to endure abuse like that. Hope you have been able to find better people to share your life with and to put a lot of distance between yourself and your heartless mother.

  11. bruce wilder

    Good luck with that one Bruce. You’d lose your restaurant . . .

    Would I? If I allowed unhygenic practices?

    We live in an economy of highly-specialized producers. Everyone does some narrow thing, and the safety and welfare of everyone else depends on the specialist doing her thing well, responsibly with skill and care. And we are all specialists.

    Sure there are a lot of people doing b.s. jobs that do not need to be done at all, let alone well. I am not considering their circumstance.

    Everyone, though is dependent on a myriad others doing their jobs. And when those largely nameless others don’t — and in a great many cases, someone is slacking, disregarding some rule in this instance or that — the dependent suffer.

    More than 100,000 patients die in American hospitals from mistakes made in medical care. Food poisoning is commonplace. Frauds ubiquitous.

    The greatest negligence, imo, occurs among elites. The Ivy League educated scribes of the New York Times lie about war. The public health experts of the Centers for Disease Control cannot devise a proper testing protocol or make sound policy.

    I don’t know when sentry duty is vital and when it is a routine, b.s. job. It is an authoritarian impulse to think a dictatorial daddy will make the trains run on time by being not just strict, but by imposing draconian punishment on the lowly slacker unfortunate enough to get caught. It takes presence of mind to remember that generals, not privates generally lose battles and wars. And, yes, the general sets the picket of sentries and is also responsible for seeing to it that their posts are set where it serves a purpose and those assigned fulfill their duty, but when the lowly soldiers see an opportunity to raid the enemy and take it successfully, I am at least suspicious that the general is not alert to the opportunities on the ground. Draconian punishment to enhance the reputation of a general who may have been embarrassed to have been seen to have missed a chance — well there are holes as well as horror in this story of the dutiful Roman.

  12. StewartM

    I agree with the substance of Bruce, but maybe for different reasons. My reasoning is as follows…

    One, rather than get all ‘het up about executing one’s child or sibling or parents, we should ask ourselves “If I/my child/my relatives/my friends were convicted of this trespass, would I favor drastic punishments for them?”. If the answer is “no”, then the reasoning should become “then others should be granted the same leniency”.

    The only exception I would make in making a penalty more severe than is usual is in cases involving leadership positions and other positions of power. People in such positions should have less ‘rights’ than ordinary people as these roles are voluntary.

    Two–you don’t want to foster a culture of fearful subordination to orders from above. Military organizations (smart ones, at least) recognize this danger and take steps to mitigate it. You *WANT* officers to violate orders when the orders are nonsensical to the actual military situation you are facing; getting your command shot to pieces because “those were my orders” as your justification should not be an acceptable outcome. Likewise, missing opportunities for victories because “my orders are to stay put” should draw censure. Manlius’s response to his son’s disobedience (which resulted in an opportunistic victory) violates these maxims. (The fact the person who violated his orders was his son makes no difference, it would have been a complete stranger).

    History is replete with examples of this. At Gettysburg, Meade’s orders had been to fight the Confederates along a prepared position along Pipe Creek, and it was Reynolds’ and Hancock’s decision to draw the entire Army of the Potomac into a battle at Gettysburg. Instead of relieving both, Meade adjusted his plans to the course of the battle. One could (and I have) argued that Reynold’s and Hancock’s decision to fight at Gettysburg actually gave Lee his only slim opportunity he could get for a military victory, for it could allow Lee to defeat the Army of Potomac piecemeal, and that it was Union luck that Ewell did not press on the attack on the evening of July 1st.

    For a contrary example, on July 2nd, when William B. Oates’ Alabama Confederates seized Big Round Top (unoccupied at the time) Oates realized that, if he could haul up artillery to the summit, which was the highest point on the battlefield, he could make the entire Union Army’s “fishhook” position untenable. He appealed to his brigade commander, Evans, then to his division commander, Hood, to allow him to deviate from orders. He was not given such leeway, so Oates’ men descended the slope to fight Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine in the famous fight at the end of the fishhook at Little Round Top, which Oates’ Confederates lost.. By contrast, the Union troops fighting the Confederates were only there because Gouvenor Warren had notice both Round Tops were unoccupied, and taken upon himself to disregard orders and rush troops from George Sykes’s 5th Corps into position under his own authority, which included the 20th Maine. The course of Gettysburg on July 2nd ended up largely resulting on Union commanders disregarding orders and Confederate commanders largely hewing to them to the letter (though I’ll admit the Union Third Corps commander, Dan Sickles, got the Union left into trouble by *his* disregard of Meade’s orders that same day).

    This is not a facile problem to solve. Yes, institutions need to be able to enforce directives. And yes, sometimes people who ignore or change these directives based on their personal evaluation can cause problems (A. P. Hill saved many a battle for R. E. Lee by his liberal use of initiative and personal discretion, but he also got his command shot to pieces a few times too the same way). But overall, punishing every deviation from “orders” which is done in good faith causes more harm than good.

    (I say good faith, as personal discretion which is deliberately done to cause mischief or harm should never be allowed…for instance, by holdover Trumpists in Homeland Security who were deliberately trying to slow-walk the Afghan evacuation to cause mischief for the Biden administration, they should have been fired on the spot).

  13. anon y'mouse

    someone above raised the issue: who set the rules and why?

    in our world, we have elites setting the rules that they know they can evade or supersede or that will never apply to them anyway (some regulations are said to be maliciously formed to keep out smaller competitors from rising when the big corp knows it can easily comply with them), and they set them for the rest of us who must follow them or suffer.

    why follow bad rulesetters and not overthrow them? the issue comes back to who sets rules and how they are set yet again, and then what group will enforce them against what other group. and for this, personal morality tends to fail. examples of this are countless.

    this is why i don’t fall for “bad apples vs good apples” cops. they have power and impunity, and lots of somewhat flexible rules they teach each other to apply flexibly to bring about the desired results. what are the desired results and who set those up? the cops don’t know or care, they simply care about OT on their timesheets and metrics they have been set to adhere to. same as nearly anywhere.

    when the AI comes that can simulate “consciousness” (whatever that may be), we will be in real trouble because there will be no humans to appeal to about the unfairness of the rules anymore. granted, this will just be technocrats hiding behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz, but my guess is that they will decide to apply the rules most inflexibly while simply teaching their own kind/kin the ins and outs of the rules so that limits never come into play at all. much like the corps that write our regulations do to the minor corporations which might rise against them now.

  14. Trinity

    Ian is still on the right track, it’s just that the example wasn’t great. The military and military duties aren’t equivalent to society. Right now, we are not only divided into haves and have nots, but also into worthies and unworthies. One is economic, the latter is philosophical. And they’ve successfully divided the unworthies against each other to mitigate any uprisings.

    Great post, Bruce.

    Thanks, SOP. It took me years to realize I wasn’t the problem. When I (much) later asked her why she did that, though, her response was that I deserved every bad thing that ever happened to me, because I was born a girl. She said I ruined her life by being born a girl. That made me realize that she really was mentally ill, and things started to get a little better for me. It’s still hard to grasp the enormity of it fully, though, if that makes sense.

    I don’t know if I over share or not, but what I do know is that the US today (for the last two+ decades especially) very much resembles the family in which I grew up (at scale).

  15. Willy

    The problem with this ‘rightness for all’ line of reasoning is that many, if not most, develop their own particular brands of ethics which is contrary to what others believe, or even what is generally considered ethical.

    For far too many, the only true ethics is surviving well while making the other poor dumb bastard pay for it. And don’t get me started on those whose only expertise is using mental defenses and whatever the hell it is that causes Dunning-Kruger, as shields against acknowledging their own moral shortcomings.

    But still, on the other hand, and possibly by the way, we do have professional sports coaches who routinely cut (fire) loyal players who they’ve publicly treated like beloved sons, usually because the player committed the grave sin of not being able to perform at the level of their pay as they once could. I think that system works because fans constantly scrutinize, fans want results, fans don’t like cheating.

    Most sports fans don’t want their beloved players play to be strongly influenced by corporate interest$ (like Sinema), to continue playing despite obvious mental incapacity due to old age (like Feinstein), or to give up when the going gets tough (like most of the rest of the D establishment).

    And don’t even get me started on the Republicans, who seem perfectly capable of sacrificing another’s son for something their own son did.

    I find it interesting how when it comes to other activities, especially the political, many of our same sports fans will allow or even encourage cheating.

  16. Ché Pasa

    This is such a Puritan uncompromising point of view, ideology if you will, and it seems badly to suit the human condition. It’s intended as a form of rationalizing arbitrary (“divine”) power. “I smite with my sword all who disobey!” Well, fine. It doesn’t make it right, it’s not justice writ large, and it is little more than display of arrogance and power.

    And every time, it falls apart.

    Think about that.

  17. Jason

    There are plenty of people who can do sentry duty. It needn’t be the almighty father’s son. He obviously did a bad job placing the boy in that position in the first place, and is unable to admit it. Too, since nothing came of it, as bruce alluded to, it should be much easier to admit the mistake and rectify it. The only thing in the way would seem to be egos.

    Larger deconstruction: Why is their defense dependent on one lone sentry? Why didn’t they build in redundancies et al to strengthen their defenses? Again, this speaks directly to the father, the leaders, those in charge, those with power – not just one guy, who in this particular instance actually did something “productive.”

    Larger, larger deconstruction: What are they protecting and why? Let’s imagine that we’re the people trying to kill both sentry and his father to get to the “spoils” that Mother Earth so abundantly provides free of charge, and which people such as the father and his son and their ilk have hoarded in the interest of building power.

    Perhaps the son will join us next time.

    But who are we? Are we really so poor and hungry that we’ve decided – of our own accord – to engage in our own potential destruction in order to take on a concentrated center of power? Or, as is more likely, are we doing so at the behest of our own elite, who themselves are hoarders and who are compelling us to do this via fear and propaganda in order to broaden and solidify their own power lust?

    I realize I’ve used examples that are general, not sticking to Ian’s specific example of a Roman consul at war with Latins. This is simply for larger illustrative purposes.

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