Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

I was never persuaded by Aristotle’s argument that happiness is the highest good (because it is the only thing that humans seek for its own sake rather than for any other end). The reason I never accepted it is that it is either circular (happiness gets defined as whatever it is you seek for its own sake) or obviously wrong (we sometimes do things for the benefit of others).

On the other hand, Kant’s argument that the only thing that is good without qualification is a good will has always seemed extremely persuasive to me and founded upon a deep, virtually universal moral intuition. If I pursue my own happiness at the expense of what I know to be right, any happiness I thereby win is not a blessing but a curse. We root for the “bad guys” not to profit from their wrongdoing. Further, we judge the rightness or wrongness of actions by the state of someone’s will. If I accidentally save someone falling from a burning house while I am engaged in trying to rob it, my “action” is not praiseworthy: there was no intent to do good. On the other hand, if I try to do the right thing, but the facts later turn out to show that I was mistaken, my actions may be regrettable but not blameworthy. For instance, if I see a man accost a child roughly and interpose myself thinking to stop an aggression, I am not to blame for my action even if it turns out the man was trying to stop a child who’d committed a serious theft, so long as, if I had known the truth, I would have acted differently.

But surely, good intentions are not enough! If I know that my actions will cause harm, but do them anyway under the guise that my intentions are good, my actions are still wrong. Politicians do this all the time, in raising subsidies or the minimum wage or in creating monopolies or in innumerable other ways. So reckless or negligent disregard for the consequences of one’s actions is blameworthy. But you don’t really have good intentions if you are reckless or negligent! A well-intentioned person will try to figure out what is best to do, and then act on that understanding.

So it’s settled: the only good thing is a good will. But wait: there’s another problem. What if I act on a moral principle that is false but which I sincerely believe to be true? Am I acting wrongly if I vote for drug prohibition on the grounds that hard paternalism is sometimes morally justified? Am I acting wrongly if, wrongly believing that hard paternalism is morally justified, I nevertheless vote against drug prohibition? It seems that Kant’s answers must be “no” and “yes,” respectively. And I agree: under some circumstances, it is morally wrong for a sincere paternalist to vote against drug prohibition, even though drug prohibition is, in the final analysis, morally wrong. Whaaa…?

This was the hardest part of Kant’s philosophy (or Adam Smith’s too, actually) for my intro political philosophy students at Buffalo to swallow. And it may be hard for you too, dear reader. Can we make sense of it in such a way that does not lead to absurd conclusions like, “It would be morally wrong for Hitler not to have commanded the Holocaust”?

Reading Jerry Gaus’ Order of Public Reason has helped me to sort out this difficult problem. (He’s drawing heavily on P.F. Strawson here, whose work I had not previously read.) From page 253:

The reasons you have must be accessible to you, and as a real rational agent in a world in which cognitive activity has significant costs, rationality does not demand one keep on with the quest to discover less and less accessible reasons. . . [E]xpert advice and the growth of social knowledge allows increasingly sophisticated and complex conclusions to be accessible as reasons to all with simply an adequate amount of deliberation. Think about all the reasons to believe and act that one has after twenty minutes on WebMD.

To have a reason to act in a certain way requires that reason to be cognitively accessible to you. You are not to blame for failing to act on very subtle reasons that only specialists could know and of which you are justifiably unaware. Then there’s this on page 254:

[T]he practice of morality is not an elite practice such as physics or moral philosophy, but a basic human practice in which all adults who have grasped the Principle of Moral Autonomy are competent. We cannot ascribe to moral agents reason to accept infinite utility calculations, the noumenal self, or the original position. These may be elements of philosophical theories that explain or further justify people’s moral reasons, and the philosophers who advocate them may argue that they are in some way the upshot of what normal moral agents do believe, but they are the result of specialist constructions based on long deliberations, and even their teaching is difficult.

Again, having the wrong moral theory is not blameworthy. Ordinary people can be expected only to act according to their good-faith understandings of their moral duties, having done a “respectable (more…)

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We all agree that it’s wrong to put cats in microwaves. Animals’ welfare matters to us. (I don’t think Damon Linker has it right when he says our moral concern for animals is simply a natural “expansion of the sphere of human concern and empathy.” My concern for my fellow human beings dictates precisely nothing about how I should treat a cat. If I think I ought to treat a cat well, that conclusion must be based on some concern for the animal’s well-being. At the same time, I agree with Linker that animals do not have moral rights, because they lack the ability to understand moral claims themselves. There is a middle position between animal rights and no-intrinsic-value-for-animals: animals have intrinsic value in virtue of their ability to suffer and to form basic social ties.)

How much should animal welfare matter? If it’s wrong for me to microwave a cat because it gives me a thrill (let’s assume), is it OK for me to eat a pig because I like its taste? But eating a pig is not the same as killing a pig. Still, eating a pig delegates the killing to others, and is that wrong? I have posed essentially this question before, without coming to a particular answer. Since then, I have come across good reasons to believe that it is impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others, but that still doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and forget about the issue.

It’s impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others because even vegetable farming involves some amount of animal killing. Eating grains means delegating the killing of rodents to granary operators. Packaged, washed greens available at the supermarket are grown with a surprising degree of animal killing (and ecological destruction). One philosopher has even argued that harm minimization principles suggest it is better to eat large mammals than lots of plants. If we should try to reduce the amount of animal suffering our eating practices cause, what follows?

While it’s difficult to come to any settled view of the matter, given the empirical controversies about precisely what does minimize harm, I believe I have found one area of clear ethical guidance, at least for North Americans. It is, as it were, a “moral free lunch.” If we are to be omnivorous, we should try, as much as possible, to (more…)

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I was recently with a longtime friend who revealed that he does not believe in morality. He thinks the only ultimate good is his own happiness. Now, he tries to act in a way that others see as moral because he believes that that is conducive to his own happiness, and he acknowledges having emotions about what other people do (learning about mass murder would make him unhappy for instance), but he refuses to connect these emotions to any propositional knowledge. For him, words like “wrong,” “right,” “ought,” and “should” have no meaning apart from an instrumental one (“If you want to be happy, you shouldn’t go around murdering people – unless you really really enjoy murdering people”).

I agreed with him that there is no way to prove that morality exists, but I maintained that it’s a properly basic assumption. Morality is like causality. The mere fact that A has followed B 1000000 times doesn’t mean it will do so the next time unless we assume causality (see Hume). We can’t prove causality from anything else; it is a fundamental category of our understanding — just the way our brains organize our sensations of the world (see Kant). In the same way, for most of us, moral judgments are inescapable. When we see someone torture an innocent person to death, we judge that act as wrong, indeed evil. My friend does not apparently judge that act as evil; he says knowing about the act would simply cause him negative emotions.

I didn’t ask him what those negative emotions would be, but my guess is that anger would play the predominant role. If the perpetrator “got away with it,” that anger would mixed with indignation or resentment. But why would you experience indignation or resentment at a criminal’s getting away with murder? Why not fear, which is presumably what asocial animals would experience if they witnessed something like this? Why not melancholy?

We are angry because we believe that the act is wrong and unjust, and should be stopped or punished with force or even violence, if necessary. If the act goes unpunished, we are indignant or resentful; the criminal “owes” something that has not been paid. Our moral judgments cause our emotions; they don’t spring from nowhere, purposeless.

Recently, psychologists have been learning more about how emotion and moral intuition are connected, something Adam Smith knew 250 years ago. Sensitivity to moral concerns is not associated with study of moral philosophy or reasoning capabilities, but with strong empathetic abilities (see Haidt, who is wrong on moral philosophy but right on moral psychology, and Margolis).

With no intended disrespect to my friend, I suspect he scores very low on the empathy spectrum. He fails to see that other human beings have legitimate interests of their own and deserve to be able to pursue happiness just as much as he is. He needs treatment in becoming empathetic — in fact, we all need that treatment from time to time.

Here’s where literature comes in. Literary fiction’s central social function is to train our empathetic organ. When we read fiction, especially with complex, nuanced characters, we put ourselves in the place of some of the characters. We see the world through their eyes and come to understand and value them. We can witness an infinite variety of events, characters, and actions that have never actually existed, so allowing us to fine-tune and to extend our empathy to situations that challenge our intuitions, typically by bringing them into conflict, or that make us think of possibilities we have never previously considered. Literature has other, more personal functions as art and entertainment, but its central social function is training us to empathize. That’s the reason why children should read literary fiction, and why it should be taught in schools, not just considered a private hobby. (more…)

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Newsweek reports on the fundraising woes of cheating website Ashley Madison, despite their profitability:

“You’re basically talking about a company that’s in the sin business,” says Lloyd Greif, president and chief executive officer of the L.A. boutique investment bank Greif & Co. “I think there are quite a few institutions that would have some explaining to do as to why they’re owning this stock.”

Lise Buyer, an IPO consultant who helped Google prepare for its 2004 public offering, says, “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a nonstarter out of the gate. But given the company’s, um, unusual business, investors will likely apply a discounted multiple when comparing this business to others with similar growth and profitability prospects.” (Translation: Ashley Madison shares could be a bargain.)

Investors in Ashley Madison can expect to make unusual profits: “Ashley Madison made $30 million in profits on $90 million in revenues last year, and expects $40 million in profits on $120 million in revenues this year.” Other investors’ reluctance to invest has driven down its share price, meaning you should be able to get bigger dividends for a smaller buy-in than for the average stock.

Is it morally permissible to invest in Ashley Madison? Virtually no one would defend cheating, even those who have done it. By investing in Ashley Madison, you are facilitating cheating, but in a market economy, you also know that if you don’t invest, others will — and reap the profits you have foregone.

Still, the fact that the vicious may benefit from your virtue is not a reason to be less virtuous. And delegating wrong-doing to others is still wrong-doing. Furthermore, by withholding investments, anti-adultery investors have forced Ashley Madison to have to pay a higher cost of capital than a normal business.

Think about analogous examples. Would you invest in a company that marketed alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco to kids? (Imagine it’s legal to do so.) Would you invest in a company that helped students cheat on exams? Would you invest in a company that sold murder for hire? Or child prostitutes? Or slaves? Some of these things are worse than others, but the principle is the same. If it’s OK to invest in Ashley Madison, then it’s OK to invest in meth dealing, contract killing, child prostitution, and slavery. If it’s not OK to invest in those things, then it’s also not OK to invest in Ashley Madison.

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Belief in freedom of the will has many beneficial consequences. Lab experiments have shown that people reading deterministic, anti-free will statements are more likely subsequently to cheat in their own favor. Researchers have even identified some of the chemical processes in the brain associated with diminished belief in free will:

Since the publication of these findings, a number of studies have documented additional anti-social behaviors resulting from discouraging a belief in free will. For example, Baumeister and colleagues demonstrated that discouraging a belief in free will leads to less helping, more aggression, more mindless conformity, less feeling of guilt, less learning of moral lessons from one’s misdeeds, and less counterfactual thinking about how one might have behaved better.

Other studies have begun to reveal the mechanisms underpinning these behavioral effects. For example, Rigoni and colleagues found that discouraging a belief in free will reduces a specific signal of the brain’s electrical activity (the “readiness potential,” as measured by electroencephalography) known to be associated with the preparation of intentional action. In recent studies conducted in my laboratory, we found that discouraging a belief in free will can reduce people’s belief in their capacity to effectively engage in mental control.

Philosophers have long debated whether moral responsibility requires a belief in freedom of the will. The case in favor holds that “ought implies can.” We only have the obligation to do things that it is under our power to do. Therefore, if it is not under our power to acbrain_regionst otherwise, we cannot have any obligation to do so. Apparently, this view is widespread.

Belief in free will may also have desirable political externalities. Determinist pragmatist John Dewey claimed that bad, old liberalism (what we here at Pileus would consider the good kind) was based on a misguided metaphysics of free will plus outdated social and economic models:

Insistence upon a metaphysical freedom of will is generally at its most strident pitch with those who despise knowledge of matters-of-fact. They pay for their contempt by halting and confined action. Glorification of freedom in general at the expensive of positive abilities in particular has often characterized the official creed of historic liberalism. Its outward sign is the separation of politics and law from economics. Much of what is called the “individualism” of the early nineteenth century has in truth little to do with the nature of individuals. It goes back to a metaphysics which held that harmony between man and nature can be taken for granted, if once certain artificial restrictions upon man are removed. Hence it neglected the necessity of studying and regulating industrial conditions so that a nominal freedom can be made an actuality. Find a man who believes that all men need is freedom from oppressive legal and political measures, and you have found a man who, unless he is merely obstinately maintaining his own private privileges, carries at the back of his head some heritage of the metaphysical doctrine of free-will, plus an optimistic confidence in natural harmony.

Source: John Dewey on Education, ed. Reginald D. Archambault (U of Chicago P), pp. 82-83

What a classic statement of turn-of-the-last-century pragmatist progressivism! What confidence in the ability of “politics and law” to “regulat[e] industrial conditions,” and in the obsolescence of “historic” traditions and beliefs!

Something of this view persists in modern-day progressivism as well. John Rawls’ difference principle, which is typically taken to justify a redistributive state, is based on the notion that no one deserves what she earns in the market, since differential skills, talents, work ethic, and even moral character are all unearned and therefore “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” We can throw all the outcomes of those characteristics into a big social pot and then reason about what to do with that pot.

Law professor John Pfaff makes a similar argument in defense of the PPACA:

Likely part of our opposition to viewing health care as a social good stems from the deep-seated libertarianism that runs through much of our political discourse. (It seems fair to say that even the American left is more libertarian than its European counterparts.) We view our money as our own (“I built it!”), and so if someone wants to take it—to, say, provide insurance for the less well-off—the justification burden is high. But there are two problems with that argument, one general and one perhaps more specific to health care issues.

More generally, our liberatarianism is likely tied to our perceptions that our economy is a meritocracy. Of course, we grossly overstate the degree of intergenerational mobility (the “American Dream” is more alive in Sweden than here), but there is an even deeper problem with the libertarian/meritocratic perspective: to a perhaps-disturbing degree, meritocracies reward generic lotteries.

In our economy, smart people rise to the top, but those smart people didn’t earn their intelligence, they were born with it. And to the extent that it was nurtured and cultured, that is due to their parents (since the returns on education are greatest when we are quite young, and thus before we are making many decisions on our own). And that work ethic? Again, significantly genetic and parental.

It’s true: you really didn’t build it, or at least not all of it. Which isn’t to argue for some sort of completely-leveling socialist state. Incentives are important, and those who take risks need rewards to compensate them. But once we realize that meritocracies are largely genetic and birth-parent lotteries, the moral claim on wealth becomes a bit weaker on the margin, and the moral argument for taking care of the less-lucky-in-birth becomes stronger.

But what happens to people who believe that everything about them, down to their own work ethic and their moral character, is unearned? According to psychology experiments, they slack off. They lie, cheat, and steal. And they vote for big government.

By contrast, conscientiousness, which depends on a strong belief in one’s own efficacy, correlates strongly with academic and economic success. I can’t help but wonder whether this might be an omitted variable driving an observed correlation between income and voting behavior, controlling for education, in Western democracies. Higher-income people are more economically liberal in the “historic” sense. I doubt that is due to selfishness so much as a belief that everyone can do better by trying harder. That belief drives both classical liberalism and success in life.

So the question is: Is freedom of the will a noble lie? I argue that it’s not. (more…)

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A moral dilemma from the popular TV show “Breaking Bad” illustrates a critique Amartya Sen made of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia and the reason why the refutation fails. In On Ethics and Economics, Sen makes the following critique of Nozick’s libertarian philosophy (heavily paraphrased because the book has yet to be unpacked, and Google Books was no help):

Suppose A knew that C was about to murder D, but needed a car to try to stop the murder. B is nearby in a car. On Nozick’s theory, it would be permissible for A to try to stop the murder without violating anyone else’s rights, but impermissible for A to to try to stop the murder by commandeering B’s car.

Sen seems to think that Nozick’s view is incoherent or at least implausible. Nozick’s theory forbids minor rights violations to prevent major ones. Of course, the theory is incoherent only if one adopts the premise that whatever is morally good must be maximized, a premise that Sen leaves implicit. Sen’s critique suggests a “consequentialism of rights”: always act so as to minimize the number of rights violations.

But the central plot twist of the “Breaking 312px-JesseshootsgaleBad” series shows us why consequentialism of rights is less plausible than a strict deontological view. In this plot twist (writing vaguely to avoid spoilers), the two main characters of the show murder an innocent man because: 1) (more…)

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Over at BHL, my friend Andrew Cohen has responded to my post earlier this week making a skeptical case against the normative credentials of the idea of “social justice.” Andrew thinks that part anyway of the problem with my skeptical argument is that is framed in terms of rights. He believes that “harms” are “more basic” than rights, and that if we recast the story in terms of harms, we get a plausible normative account of where exactly social justice (more specifically, moral injustice) comes to be. I had framed that question in terms of supervenience, which is the idea that somehow moral (or more generally normative) properties come to be because of or in virtue of underlying non-normative (natural) properties. Most moral philosophers accept that as an analytical framework, because (i) it seems to be the way we think about normative properties, and (ii) it is neutral between at least a wide variety of theories about what the normative properties we should care about are, and what they supervene upon. I don’t think Andrew is rejecting that bit of analytic framework: he is thinking it works better if we look at “harms” as being the base (the “subvening” class of natural properties). Andrew has a book coming out explicating this sort of framework, and I haven’t read it. No doubt some at least of what I have to say here Andrew has counterarguments for in his book. My point will be that what we have on the table now neither solves the present problem (making normative sense of social justice) nor is an advance in providing analytical tools. Let me take the second, more general, point first.

First, I agree with Andrew that rights are not the most basic normative (moral) concept. But I don’t think that matters here. We’re after an understanding of justice or injustice, and rights-talk can usefully be used as a shorthand for the moral status that is violated or abused or what have you when injustice occurs. (And I’m fine with Andrew’s suggestion that it may be more useful to get a grip on injustice than on justice.) We can differ on what rights we have, and on why we have the rights we have, but still agree that injustice occurs when rights are violated. That anyway is the tradition I think most BHL’ers have been working in (indeed most liberal political philosophers, in the inclusive sense of “liberal”), and the one I work in. I don’t think it is one Andrew offers any alternative to, as I will argue.

Here’s the problem, and it is not a new one. The notion of “harm” is under pressure from both the normative and the non-normative side. That is, we want to use the term in such a way that harms are bad, but we also want to use it to capture certain kinds of natural fact about the world, such as when for example I hit your arm with my running chain saw. Since attaching normative properties to natural properties is in some sense the very problem I think we face in thinking about “social justice,” this might be a virtue for thinking in terms of harms. In fact I think it is not, because rather than providing a careful analysis of how this “attachment” takes place, harms-talk often equivocates between the two uses. Andrew does this in his post.

Harms, he says, are not just hurts. Although he doesn’t define “hurts,” what he goes on to say about harms suggests that we could think of hurts as “setbacks to interests.” That’s fine, provided we have a (more basic) account of interests. I doubt we can do things this way, but set that aside. The point is that hurts, so understood, have no import for (in)justice. That’s because setbacks to interests, though in most cases disagreeable to those whose interests they are, don’t necessarily represent moral wrongs. I can apply to a job I really like, and which it would be in my interest to get, and be in dandy shape until you — better educated, more experienced, a better candidate in every way — apply for the job as well, and get it. You have set back my interests in doing so, and so have hurt me. But (barring some further story) you have not wronged me, and there is no injustice involved. So hurts are not what we are interested in.

To move past this point, Andrew specifies that what we are interested in is wrongful hurts, wrongful setbacks to interests. That’s what harms are. They are wrongful, hence normative.  (So, strictly speaking, “wrongful harms” should be redundant, on Andrew’s view. I think it is telling that he finds himself using that locution anyway.) But now we need an account of when harms are wrongful, and when not. Harms are not, after all, normatively basic: they are dependent on an account of when setbacks to interests are wrongful, and when they are not. It is worth considering what J.S. Mill does when he runs into this problem, in trying to establish his “Harm Principle” as a basic principle for understanding when social intervention in individual action is permissible and when not. As many observers have noted, this strategy cannot possibly make harms basic, because many (including the harms to “disappointed competitors,” as in my example above) do not trigger the Harm Principle. That is to say, they don’t carry the normative significance that the relevant harms do. Nor do harms resulting from the “inseparable” effects of the “unfavorable judgment of others” (Ch. V), nor harms that are not “direct and in the first instance” (Ch. I), and so on. Mill finds himself using the language of “rights” to pick out which harms count: it is those that violate rights! (Ch. V).

I don’t mean to saddle Andrew with Mill’s problems, but he faces the same challenge: which harms are wrongful? When Andrew tells us what that criterion is, I will say: fine. Let’s say that people have rights to not being harmed in those wrongful ways, and we are right back where we began. Where is the injustice that doesn’t occur by individuals to individuals — the harm (following Andrew) that we need the notion of “social justice” to capture?

Notice that we cannot answer simply by identifying people whose interests have been set back. Doing so is identifying hurts, but not yet harms. To show the harms necessary for injustice, we have to show that these hurts are wrongful. If we are successful, at the end we will have an account of wrongfulness that cannot be set out in terms of hurts (since it is a criterion for when hurts become harms). So the recourse to hurts and harms is a superstructure, not a foundation. I doubt it offers much to moral theory, but as I say I haven’t read Andrew’s book, so Andrew very likely offers interesting ways to address these concerns.

In any event, the problem for the case at hand —making normative sense of “social injustice” — is that the structure Andrew is providing will face a challenge: show how there is a wrongful hurt that isn’t a hurt imposed by an individual, on an individual. Perhaps his book will do this, but we don’t have an indication yet of how he can do so. As his commenters have pointed out, Andrew’s example (of a receiver of a stolen iPhone) doesn’t work. There is no question that there is wronging occurring here, and that it counts as injustice. (At least I am not inclined to quarrel with the example in this way.) But just for that reason, we don’t need “social justice” to identify the wrong: we get everything we need with plain old injustice. At least, Andrew has not shown that this is not so. Moreover, this is far from the kind of case that “social justice” is trotted out to cover: the kinds of cases that, for instance, Kevin hoped to explain with the idea that “social justice” is an emergent property. So I don’t see that we make any progress on the problem by focusing on hurts or harms.

Addendum: one other point about Andrew’s argument. He says this:

The reason is simply that groups are nothing more than collections of individuals, so if something supervenes on group G, it supervenes on the collection of individuals that make up group G.

The first clause is amenable to moral individualism, on one reading. The fact that these individuals may be collected into a group in general would not change the moral standing, entitlement, or obligations of those individuals, if moral individualism is true. But the second clause (following “so”) can be true only on a reading of the first that is not compatible with moral individualism. The question is whether the subvening base of the moral properties (in this case, justice or injustice) is the individuals in the collection, or the collection itself. These can have importantly different properties. The House of Representatives is a collection of individuals. That collection has the authority to pass laws that none of its members do. The individuals are entitled to cast votes in their respective states, but the collection is not. Thinking that all the properties of the collection are just the properties of its members is a classic informal fallacy. I think the normative purport of “social justice” depends on that fallacy, and this is an indication of how easy it is for even a good philosopher to commit it. On moral individualism, only individuals, not the collections to which they belong, subvene normative properties. That’s why there is a normative problem with “social justice.”

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I have great respect and (in many cases) affection for my friends at Bleeding Hearts Libertarians. But I am not a bleeding heart libertarian, and from the outset I have resisted its siren song, mostly over its endorsement of “social justice” as a moral and/or political ideal. Unlike Hayek, I do not think the concept is incoherent. But I think Hayek has a point, and my resistance to the concept I think tracks at least some of Hayek’s motivation. But that resistance is normative, rather than conceptual. Recent exchanges on BHL have helped me clarify my thinking about the point that concerns me.

Kevin Vallier posted this week on the topic, responding to challenges from David Friedman as to the cogency of the concept. The discussion that follows Kevin’s post is excellent, and I am highly sympathetic to many of those resisting Kevin’s analysis. However, I would mount an objection slightly different than those on offer there.

Start with a point of agreement. Kevin says,

I take it that the term “social justice” can be used to cover individual rights-violations. For instance, if John rapes Reba, he has committed a grave injustice, one that could be called a social injustice. However, this is not the conceptual home of the concept of social injustice.

He is surely right about this. Individual rights-violations are, by their nature, unjust. Since they are transactions between two individuals, they are also social, and we can, if we like, uselessly append “social” to our description of actions as unjust. If that is all “social injustice” means, there would be no quarrel here. As Kevin suggests, we need to look elsewhere for its “conceptual home.”

Kevin thinks that “conceptual home” is in the class of emergent properties. Here is his central claim:

Social injustice is an emergent property of certain kinds of social, moral and political practices. Let’s illustrate with the familiar example of institutional racism. I take it that an institution is racist insofar as it reliably outputs states of affairs where a racial group fails to receive its due based solely on the racial properties of its members. Thus, even if no one in the institution is racist, they participate in practices that result, say, in blacks having fewer opportunities than whites simply because they are black. In other words, the institutional rules operate such that unequal outcomes are caused primarily by racial differences, even if no one person is acting in a racist fashion. Institutional racism is a paradigmatic case of social injustice. It is an emergent property of a social institution that commits an injustice without any individual acting in an unjust fashion.

Emergent properties are an important class of properties, but Kevin’s proposal is unusual in deploying the concept in this way. Why? He is proposing that a normative property — social injustice — is emergent from non-normative properties (perhaps the distribution of “opportunities,” however those are measured). And this is curious. The typical deployment of the notion of emergent properties would, I think, involve the emergence of non-normative (let’s call them “natural”) properties from other natural properties. Many of the spontaneous orders we see in both natural and social science are of this sort. The structure of crystals is an emergent property in the sense that crystals have that structure because of other physical properties they have. Language-use is a property that humans have in virtue of various neurological and other biological properties we have. And so on. Nothing to see here. Emergence of normative properties from other normative properties is also, I’d think, unproblematic. That would be, for example, the liberal analysis of slavery. We see the large scale pattern of injustice as caused by an assortment of unjust individual attitudes, beliefs, and courses of conduct. Again, nothing to see here.

But the proposal that normative properties might emerge somehow from natural properties oughtn’t to be dismissed simply because it is unusual. If you work much with normative concepts, you become accustomed to the idea that things work differently when you are contending with reasons, norms, and the like rather than causes. If the world is a causal order, and it has normative properties, then somehow we have to end up with normative properties emerging from natural ones. The form of emergence that moral and other philosophers typically deploy is supervenience. Normative properties like goodness, rightness, and so on supervene on natural properties, in the sense (some sense; different theories give different accounts of this relation) that the normative properties occur somehow because the natural properties occur. If you are a hedonist, for example, you think that badness supervenes on pain, goodness on pleasure. Something (an act, a state of affairs) has the property of badness precisely because it also has the property of being painful.

And this gets us to what is interesting. Remember that, if the concept of social justice is going to be at all interesting, it cannot simply be redescribing the sort of injustice that occurs when individuals violate the rights of others. What does the social injustice supervene on? The crucial point is: whatever the answer to that question, it is not a property of individuals.

Is that a problem? I’m not sure. I am inclined to think that the essence of individualism at the heart of liberalism is a kind of moral individualism — the idea, roughly, that all sources of value, obligations, and so on are individuals. Does Kevin believe that? Here’s what he says:

I can’t speak for my co-bloggers, but from my vantage point libertarians all too often ignore social injustices because of their sometimes flat footed (dare I say “cartoon”?) moral individualism. I’m a moral individualist in the sense that I think injustices can only be done to individuals, families or to voluntary associations. In a real sense, I don’t think injustices can be committed against “Americans” or “blacks” understood as groups defined independently of their members. So traditional libertarians are right that emphasize that the idea of social justice can sometimes be deployed in inappropriately collectivist ways.

But social injustices can be committed independently of human design. That’s a significant claim that departs from many threads of libertarian thought popular today. And my view on the matter is one of the reasons I joined the blog.

How does the moral individualism Kevin endorses differ from “cartoon” moral individualism? I’m not sure.  Is it an aberration that in a previous paragraph he spoke of “a racial group failing to receive its due”? I think it is not an aberration, but a natural slide invited and made possible by adversion to social justice.

I believe (and I think Kevin believes) that groups are per se not due anything. There are certainly moral and political positions (positions worth engaging) that disagree. But these are certainly not within either the classical liberal or libertarian tradition, and they require a rejection of the moral individualism that I think is worth endorsing, and to which Kevin is paying lip service. And the issue here isn’t the defensibility of such a claim, but whether or not those committed to libertarian ideals and principles should embrace or reject the use of the concept of social justice.

Is this then just an unfortunate slip? The problem is, without the thought that the normative property (the social injustice) supervenes on facts about groups, rather than individuals, there is no injustice here to be found. And that’s just where the BHL’ers would like to be able to find injustice. It’s tempting to revert to the idea that the individuals in the groups in question suffer, say, from a deprivation of opportunities. But either those deprivations are by individuals, to individuals, in a way that violates the rights of the injured parties, or those are not. If they are, then we have plain old injustice, without a need to appeal to “social justice.” And if they aren’t, then it’s hard to see where the moral complaint is, nor what individuals are “committing” the social injustice. Here the view Kevin is proposing is trying to have it both ways. Skeptics about social justice think that is endemic to the concept.

It’s worth noting that in Rawls’ hands the problem has to be located in a different place. I can’t see that Rawls ever locates the injustice of social injustice in properties of groups. (Though groups figure into the specification of the remedy, in the form of the Difference Principle, I take this to be a feature of the solution to the problem, not part of the formulation of the normatively problematic state of affairs — the social injustice — itself.) In that sense, Rawls’ moral individualism is intact. To get to social injustice, as I understand him Rawls has to build the social properties at issue into the obligations of justice we have as individuals. That is, part of what it is for us to treat each other justly, as individuals, is on his view to establish and sustain social institutions with the properties called for by principles of justice. That way of conceiving of social justice has its own problems, not for this post (which is already too long as it is). Is it compatible with thinking that social injustice is an emergent property (to return to Kevin’s basic proposal). Perhaps. But if so the emergence is a 5th wheel: all the work in generating the social injustice is done by individuals failing, in effect, to act justly in establishing institutional arrangements that satisfy the principles of justice. I am skeptical that we do have obligations of justice of the sort that this interpretation of Rawls requires. One reason for doing so is that (like Nozick) I suspect that these obligations of justice are incompatible with obligations of justice I am much more confident we have toward each other (such as obligations generated by desert). That’s why I think there is something deeply problematic about the Rawlsian conception of social justice. Those reservations are not alleviated by recourse to thinking that social justice (or injustice) is somehow emergent.

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I like a great deal of Bryan Caplan’s work, and what I like I like a great deal, but it seems to me he makes a significant inferential error in this recent EconLog post. Caplan notes that “71% of poor families with children are headed by single parents. About 80% of all long-term poverty occurs in single-parent homes. Married high school dropouts have lower poverty rates than single parents with one or two years of college.” He infers from these statistics that there are very few “deserving poor”:

If you combine Rector’s evidence with common-sense moral beliefs about the deserving poor, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that few “poor” Americans qualify. The moral admonition to “help the deserving poor” asks us come to the aid of people who are (a) genuinely destitute, even though (b) they took reasonable measures to avoid destitution. Rector shows that few Americans qualify on either count.

How many of those poor, single-parent families are so because the marriage broke up? How many of those families are so because the father was incarcerated? Fewer than half of children currently in single-parent households were born outside wedlock. You can blame mothers in many of these cases for a poor choice of partner, but living in poverty with your children is a hell of a sentence for that kind of mistake. Some of these households could well be considered “deserving poor.” And yes, their material circumstances are usually not dire, but dignity has to do with a lot more than material circumstances. If you have a refrigerator and a TV but can’t afford to go back to school and get an education to improve your lot in life, are you really well off?

Fatherlessness is important for explaining poverty, but that doesn’t mean fatherless families don’t deserve help.

[Note: "1%" corrected to "71%" above. Copy and paste error - apologies!]

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Roger Koppl argues this week at ThinkMarkets that “Income inequality matters.” He thinks it matters so much that he says it twice. He believes “Austrian,” pro-market, economic liberals should be speaking up more on this “central issue.” I think Koppl could not be more wrong. The issue deserves all the inattention we can muster for it.

The problem I think is not Koppl’s motives. He rightly says that we should “watch out for ways the state can be used to create unjust privileges for some at the expense of others.” He is certainly right about that. He argues that unjust state policies may be skewing market results in such a way as to increase inequality. He may be right about that. But he is wrong in suggesting that we ought therefore to be paying attention to income inequality. We ought therefore to be paying attention to those policies. Whether they produce greater inequality is neither here nor there.

Koppl gives four examples: (i) policies that privatize profits and socialize losses, (ii) bad regulation, (iii) collapse of the rule of law, and (iv) public schools. I can certainly join Koppl in a hearty wish that we not only attend to these unwarranted policies, programs, and tendencies, but that we do so with a degree of urgency prompted, in part, by their effects on the poorest and most vulnerable among us. But talking about inequality is precisely a distraction from doing so.

In a great paper of a few years ago, Harry Frankfurt argued that “Egalitarianism is harmful because it tends to distract those who are beguiled by it from their real interests.”* Frankfurt thought that focusing on equality was actually pernicious because it distracted us from attention to real harms, of which inequality is at most an indicator. And he was right. It may well be that, for example, the evisceration of the rule of law results in greater income inequality. But it also might not. Whether or not it does so, however, it is unjust, and it deserves our attention. Similarly for the increase in moral hazard and regulation, to say nothing of the deplorable system of public education. All of these need attention, and one prime reason they do so is because of their effects on those least capable of circumventing their evils. If we care about the poor, what we ought to care about is bad policy, not indicators that may or may not have anything to do with policies that are making people worse off. As long as we are worrying about income inequality, we are worrying about the wrong thing.

* In “The Moral Irrelevance of Equality,” Public Affairs Quarterly, April 2000.

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I was originally going to post this as a comment on Sven’s interesting and provocative post, “Just chemistry,” but it ended up being long enough to make a short post out of it instead.

As I read it, Sven’s argument that atheists cannot give a rational foundation for morality could also be interpreted as a “synthetic” argument for the existence of God (as Kant would put it):

  1. If God does not exist, human beings do not have moral worth. (premiss)
  2. Human beings have moral worth. (premiss)
  3. Therefore, God exists. (conclusion)

In other words, the existence of God is a “necessary presupposition” for the postulate of morality.

Of course, arguments need to be provided for the premisses. What would that argument look like? Perhaps: “If God exists, God possesses moral worth; whatever someone with moral worth creates in his own image itself has moral worth; God created human beings in his own image; therefore, human beings have moral worth.” One worry about this argument is about what “in his own image” means, but a more fundamental problem with it is that it ends up substituting the assertion that God has moral worth for the assertion that human beings have moral worth. If theists can simply treat the moral worth of God as a basic premiss for which no argument needs to be given, why cannot atheists treat the moral worth of human beings as a basic premiss for which no argument needs to be given? In other words, the argument establishes only the minor premiss above, not the major premiss.

Here’s another possibility: “All and only beings that have souls have moral worth; human beings have souls; therefore, human beings have moral worth.” The argument establishes the minor premiss of the moral argument for the existence of God. But what about the major premiss? We could add to the argument of this paragraph, “All beings with souls are created by God; therefore, if God does not exist, no beings with souls exist; therefore, if God does not exist, human beings do not have souls; therefore, if God does not exist, human beings do not have moral worth.”

The trouble with this route is that two of the premisses are controversial: that beings with souls are necessarily created by God, and that only beings with souls have moral worth. As Aeon Skoble has pointed out in the comment thread on Sven’s post, non-theist philosophers like Aristotle and Kant have accepted the existence of a soul (of a sort). (New atheists, of course, wouldn’t.)

Then atheists might also challenge the notion that a soul is necessary for moral worth. What is it about God-ness that makes God have moral worth, which can then be passed on to human beings? If “just chemistry” doesn’t create moral worth, what about “just spirit”? There’s a longstanding argument in moral philosophy that freedom of the will, in some sense, is a necessary prerequisite for moral responsibility. It is incorrect to hold someone responsible for X if that person could not have done other than X. If that is the case, strict, deterministic materialism may be inconsistent with moral responsibility, and therefore moral worth in any fundamental, non-utilitarian sense (i.e., a sense other than, “it is useful for us to believe in moral worth”). But of course, neither accepting freedom of the will nor rejecting strict materialism requires theism.

A more troubling issue for the new atheists is that of reward and punishment. If offenders do not get their just deserts in an afterlife, our sense of justice is offended. As Damon Linker points out in the quotation in Sven’s post, that’s the real tragedy of a universe with God: some people do evil and profit by it; some people do good and suffer for it. Kant was so offended by this possibility that he thought this was the only sound argument for the existence of God. I’m not sure it’s an argument for the existence of God, but at least it’s an argument that we should be depressed about the absence of God should God not exist.

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Jonathan Haidt is everywhere these days, giving interviews and TED talks, promoting his working papers in the media, writing for the websites yourmorals.org and civilpolitics.org, and publishing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012). A moral psychologist by training, Haidt has successfully cleared the jump to public intellectual, now dispensing didactic advice to Americans about what ails their politics. The Righteous Mind reflects those aspirations, not just summing up his own original research on the psychological foundations of political ideology for a general audience, but also shoehorning in some surprising interpretations of moral philosophy and conjuring out of the whole stew some advice for American politicos (and what could be more important than that?).

Did you know that moral philosophers do not believe in intuition? Did you know that David Hume thought that reason was weak and ineffectual against the tide of passions? Did you know that Bentham and Kant were probably on the autism spectrum, and that that fact explains their moral philosophies? Did you know that Kant was a philosophical rationalist, and that philosophical rationalists think that morality is all about justice and fairness? Philosophical rationalists also think that children learn about morality through experience, just like Lawrence Kohlberg, Haidt’s nemesis in moral psychology — and totally not like Hume.(*)

If you did not know these things, which might especially be the case if you are a moral philosopher, Haidt is here to enlighten you. As he helpfully informs us, he took a couple of philosophy courses as an undergraduate, before he realized that it was all bunkum.

Haidt begins (more…)

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In his book The Righteous Mind (review coming soon) and in a coauthored paper with Ravi Iyer and others, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims that libertarians are essentially amoral(*): they care less about care, fairness, authority, loyalty, and sanctity than conservatives and liberals and care most of all about liberty. (I blogged the latter study here.)

But it turns out that one of the chief surveys on which most of this research rests looks geared toward generating biased outcomes for libertarians specifically. The “Moral Scenarios” survey asks respondents to judge the morality of certain actions, all of which involve the exchange of money. Here is one example:

A professional sports player has played for his hometown team for the past 10 years and has never played anywhere else. Recently, he was offered a lot of money to play for his hometown team’s rival in a different city. Losing their best player to a rival team would upset many people in his hometown. However, he decides to take the offer and play for the rival team.
How morally offensive is this?
Not at all offensive Extremely offensive
How upsetting is this?
Not at all upsetting Extremely upsetting
How angry does this make you feel?
Not at all angry Extremely angry

You can give your reaction on a 1-7 scale.

Now, two things are peculiar about this survey. First, all the questions are about the exchange of money. Other questions are about the morality of a manufacturer’s making a less safe car to save money, auctioning off a place in the liver transplant queue, and so on. Thus, the questions seem almost calculated to elicit defensive responses from libertarians, who more than conservatives and liberals tend to be committed to the justice of market exchange. It’s therefore no surprise that libertarians are less likely to answer that these actions are “morally offensive” than are liberals and conservatives. If the survey consisted of moral dilemmas in which the pursuit of equality (sanctity) had perverse consequences, then liberals (conservatives) would likely be the defensive ones with lower average scores on “moral offensiveness.”

Second, the questions are overwhelmingly tilted toward eliciting an emotional, intuitive response rather than a reflective one. I don’t think of morality as a sliding scale of “offensiveness,” but Haidt does, and he forces his respondents into that philosophical straitjacket. My own response to almost all of these scenarios was “it depends.” There was no option for that, of course. So I chose an answer right in the middle of the scale. It turns out that middling answers on these scenarios puts you well below the typical liberal and conservative responses. Again, since libertarians often tend to elevate reason (possibly excessively) and denigrate emotion as a guide to moral judgment, they are less likely to take extreme positions on these questions. That tendency alone further biases the results toward libertarians’ appearing comparatively amoral.

(*) “Essentially amoral” is my gloss on his findings. He criticizes libertarians as being extreme exemplars of so-called “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) morality, caring only about rights and not about other moral dimensions.

This post has been updated to add the footnote above.

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It’s not all-politics-all-the-time. Today in my “Happiness and the Meaning of Life” class I showed them an episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog. In “Dog for a Day,” Emily Elizabeth’s friend Charlie complains about having to do chores. He notices Clifford playing with his friends Cleo and T-Bone, and it occurs to him that dogs don’t have to do chores, but in fact do nothing besides play and sleep and eat. He wishes he were a dog. That night, he dreams he is a dog. At first, he is delighted! He doesn’t have to do chores! He goes to play with Clifford. At first it’s fun, but Charlie realizes quickly that he can no longer ride his bike, play soccer, talk to his dad or to his friends – even school. In short, he misses all the constitutive elements of a human life. Clifford notes that they get to roll in the sand and dig for bones and chase their tails, but Charlie finds this not entirely satisfying. He realizes, as Aristotle noted long ago, that human happiness is distinct from the happiness of other animals. Each type of thing has a different nature, and so flourishes in a different way. To be sure, the human good is itself pluralistic: Charlie and Emily Elizabeth may have distinctly different modes of flourishing. But the human good is generically different from the canine good. Clifford doesn’t quite get why Charlie isn’t satisfied with dog-pleasures. But Charlie gets it very quickly: despite the necessity of doing homework and chores, the human life consists of all sorts of pleasures that dogs do not appreciate. When Charlie wakes up from his dream, he is happy to discover he is still a person, and runs to find his dad so he can help with chores. His dad is surprised at this turn of events and comments “you don’t seem yourself.” Charlie replies “no Dad: I am myself!” Lesson learned.

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“Imagine that a Wall Street billionaire is passing a bag lady on the street. She begs for a dollar. Should the billionaire give it to her? It’s just plain obvious that the bag lady would benefit more from the dollar than the billionaire. The donation would detract from his happiness less than it would add to hers. Therefore, interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible, and these comparisons ground our eleemosynary duties.”

So runs a familiar thought experiment beloved of utilitarians and consequentialists about property (like Rawlsians). Indeed, to deny that interpersonal comparisons of utility are ever possible seems willfully obtuse. Moreover, to deny that there are any eleemosynary duties is heartless and wrong. What I wish to challenge here is the idea that interpersonal comparisons of utility ground those duties.

Just as the original scenario resorts to the intuition pump, I shall do the same. This scenario is likewise intended to illustrate clear differences in utility across persons.

Imagine that you have been fairly well-off. Two formerly well-off friends of yours have, however, fallen on hard times. They have lost their jobs and run through their savings. They have sold their houses, moved into cramped, run-down apartments, and are generally living a hand-to-mouth existence in which they lack some of the “primary goods” needed for a decent life, such as the ability to save for the future. One friend bewails his condition constantly; he is clearly deeply unhappy due to his financial circumstances (but not suicidal). The other friend seems to accept his lot with relative cheerfulness; while he regards his financial circumstances, which are just as bad as those of the other friend, as a serious difficulty, he maintains an optimistic view on life and on the whole is not terribly unhappy.

Which of these friends is more deserving of your support, or are they equally deserving? For the utilitarian, the answer is clear: the unhappier friend deserves more financial assistance, as financial assistance will do more to raise his spirits. But is that the right answer? Intuitively, it is not. Intuitively, the second friend deserves as much support as the first, and we might even be more favorably disposed to aid the second friend — while we pity the first, we admire the resilience of the second and want to see that character trait rewarded.

Is there any principle beside the principle of utility that our intuition would support? I suggest (more…)

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In case you haven’t heard, libertarians on the ‘Net have been having another one of those more-heating-than-enlightening internecine debates, this one sparked by a video by Julie Borowski on why there aren’t more libertarian women. Sarah Skwire and Steve Horwitz responded on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, accusing Ms. Borowski of “slut shaming” and generally denigrating women by assailing the consumerism and sex obsessions of certain women’s magazines. Tom Woods slapped back in defense of the original video, and Cathy Reisenwitz made a video response celebrating “sex, butts, and orgasms” as part and parcel of libertarianism (HT: Spatial Orientation).

When will libertarians learn that “libertinism” (do whatever you want so long as you don’t hurt anyone else, whether shooting up heroin or engaging in casual sex) is not in any way logically implied by “libertarianism,” a political theory of robust individual rights and a limited state? Supporting adults’ right to engage in casual, recreational, voluntary sex has precisely nothing to do with judging that behavior to be wise or even morally justified. Libertinism implies sexual libertarianism, but the converse is false.

In addition, castigating supporters of traditional sexual mores as “slut shamers” (whatever that means) seems no more likely to win converts to libertarianism than was Ms. Borowski’s generalization that women are captives to popular culture.

Libertarians, just like everyone else, can and should debate the ethics and prudential value of sexual relationships of various kinds — and for what it’s worth, my views are probably more liberal than Ms. Borowski’s on those questions — but they must not denigrate those who disagree as themselves morally suspect.

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Here are the essay questions from the final exam I gave in “Introduction to Political Philosophy” last semester. How would you answer these questions?

Rights to Property
Answer one of these questions.
1. What is John Rawls’ “difference principle,” and how does he defend it?
What are its implications for the welfare state? Is the argument persuasive?
Why or why not?
2. Robert Nozick criticizes “patterned” principles of justice in holdings, like
Rawls’, on the grounds that they authorize unjust redistribution of wealth.
Why do patterned principles authorize redistribution? Why is redistribu-
tion unjust? Are those arguments persuasive? Why or why not?

Evaluating Moral Arguments
Answer one of these questions.
1. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally imper-
missible to take away anyone’s life, health, liberty, or possessions without
her clear consent. 2. Governments take away people’s possessions (taxa-
tion) and liberty (imprisonment) in certain circumstances. 3. Therefore,
governments must obtain the clear consent of every person they govern.
4. Virtually no government on earth has obtained the clear consent of ev-
eryone they govern. 5. Therefore, virtually all governments systematically
violate the rights of their subjects.”

2. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally
impermissible to allow someone to die when one could save that person
without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. 2. The
consumption of luxury goods is not of comparable moral significance to
human life. 3. Therefore, if one can save another person’s life merely
by transferring money that one would otherwise have used to purchase
luxury goods, one is morally bound to do so (i.e., it would be morally
impermissible not to). 4. Today, people in the rich world have surplus
money that they spend on luxuries, money that we know could save lives in
the poor world. 5. Therefore, people in the rich world are morally bound
to transfer money that would otherwise be spent on luxuries to people in
the poor world who would otherwise die.”

Notably, only one person who answered 3.2.1 thought the argument was sound, and only a small number of students who answered 3.2.2 thought this argument was sound. Both arguments are valid.

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Left-libertarians are dismayed at the support most libertarians and classical liberals have been giving to right-to-work laws, which withdraw recognition from clauses in collective bargaining contracts that require all employees in a workplace to pay agency fees to the union that represents that workplace. Many libertarians have supported right-to-work laws on the grounds that they “balance the playing field” somewhat or undo some of the harm caused by the National Labor Relations Act (or “Wagner Act”), which requires employers to bargain collectively with a union that achieves majority support in an organization election. But left-libertarians aren’t buying that as a rationale for laws that withdraw recognition from a particular type of private contract.

Quoth J.D. Tuccille:

[T]he distortions in human life caused by intrusive laws always raise the temptation to patch over the problems with additional legislation. That additional legislation is likely to lead to more problems … That’s why we’re always better off dumping bad laws than trying to “fix” them in a spiraling game of spackle-the-law books.

And here is Gary Chartier:

Right-to-work proponents argue that the laws they favor only help to level the playing field created by government action—by reining in special privileges granted to unions under existing labor law.

But those laws actually presuppose the restrictions inherent in that framework, while extending them further. One goal of the NLRA and later federal laws was to reduce conflict—-and in effect reduce workers’ choices—-by ensuring that just one union, moderate enough to win majority support (and therefore moderate enough to be cooperative with employers), would operate in a given workplace, while suppressing more radical unions and labor actions.

And finally here is Sheldon Richman, quoting Percy Greaves:

“Two wrongs never make a right. The economic answer is to repeal the bad intervention and not try to counterbalance it with another bad intervention. Such moves only provide the politicians with greater power over the entire economy.” In other words, the end doesn’t justify the means.

Is the “two wrongs don’t make a right” analogy persuasive here? First, let’s specify that we are looking at right-to-work laws for private-sector workers. RTW laws for public-sector workers could be viewed simply as the government’s tying its hands with respect to its own future collective bargaining negotiations, something that few would deny they have a moral right to do. Second, let’s all agree that the purpose of collective bargaining is, above all, to establish a monopoly of labor with respect to a particular employer. The union uses its bargaining power to negotiate higher wages and benefits than they could receive on a competitive labor market. That this is the primary purpose of unions, especially in the post-Wagner Act era, isn’t disputed by mainstream labor economists (see Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action, among many others). Third, let’s agree as libertarians that the Wagner Act is unjust, that it wrongly forces employers to negotiate with a union and wrongly forces employees to be represented by a union even if they do not consent to such representation. Of course, non-libertarian liberals can and do disagree with this proposition.

Now, let’s consider an inflammatory analogy to the Wagner Act. Imagine that the government decides to give its official stamp of approval to Mafia protection contracts reached with shopkeepers (call it the “National Mob-Small Business Relations Act” (NMSBRA)). So long as the Mafia follows certain procedures in strongarming shop owners into agreeing to their demands, the courts will enforce contracts reached under duress. To libertarians, left and right, there is not much fundamentally morally different between the Wagner Act and the NMSBRA.

Now, suppose some of these mob protection contracts contain exclusive-supplier clauses. They state that the hapless storeowner not only must pay off the mob, but must use only mob-approved suppliers. In response, some states pass “right-to-supply” laws, which forbid the enforcement of mob protection contracts’ exclusive-supplier clauses, while leaving the basic structure of the NMSBRA intact.

Do right-to-supply laws take away freedom? After all, they interfere with “private contracts,” and it is possible, though unlikely, that some shopkeepers would want to sign exclusive-supplier contracts with the Mafia even in the absence of any threat of coercion.(*)

But surely, refusing to enforce a particular, exploitative provision of an extorted “contract” does not in any tangible sense infringe on freedom and, in fact, enhances it. By the logic of left-libertarian opponents of right-to-work, if the government ever adopted something like the NMSBRA, then “right-to-supply” laws ameliorating the oppression should be resisted as intrusions into supposed “freedom of contract.” This position reminds me of purist opponents of legal medical marijuana on the grounds that only fully legal marijuana is worth supporting.

Now, I don’t want to imply that mob protection contracts are in fact morally equivalent to union shop contracts. I am merely arguing that they are analogous. Sometimes an “extreme” analogy can help us better understand the moral principles behind our judgments. In this case, I see no intuitively appealing moral principle that could equally condemn right-to-work laws and the Wagner Act, as left-libertarians wish.

But there’s more. (more…)

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Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a thought-provoking piece entitled, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” in the latest Cato Unbound. They criticize postwar libertarians (specifically mentioning Mises, Rand, and Rothbard) for seeing property rights as absolute and, in their view, regarding the welfare of the working poor as irrelevant to moral justifications for capitalism:

In the remainder of this essay, we will discuss one particular way that neoclassical liberalism has a better grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the libertarianism of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. It is not the only contrast, but one of the clearest and most important differences between these two schools of libertarian thought has to do with the proper nature of concern for, and obligation to, the working poor. On this issue, the neoclassical liberal position is that the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system. And this position, we will argue, has a far more solid grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the justificatory indifference to which the postwar libertarians are committed.

They go on to cite John Locke, Adam Smith, and Herbert Spencer (yes, Spencer!) as classical liberals who would be more sympathetic to the neoclassical-liberal project of justifying markets partly on the basis of their consequences for the welfare of the least well off. However, they also argue, plausibly, that Rand and Rothbard in particular were not indifferent to the fate of the poor, simply that they viewed the coincidence of respect for individual property rights and a better life for all as a happy fortuity. (Mises was more of a consequentialist and perhaps after all a comfortable fit within neoclassical liberalism.)

I would stress that (more…)

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Political libertarians are a motley lot in terms of their moral philosophies. There are three dominant strands – utilitarians like Milton Friedman, deontologists like Robert Nozick, and teleologists like Ayn Rand – but I’ve also met egoists, postmodernists, and Rawls-style egalitarian consequentialists. In debates over moral foundations, Randians often ally themselves with the deontologists in support of “natural rights” (a bit of a misnomer, as deontologists prefer not to locate the source of rights in “nature” but in reason).

Critical Review editor Jeffrey Friedman, a utilitarian, used to say that rights libertarians are more dogmatic than utilitarians on questions of social science. He was extremely skeptical of the line of argument, commonly found in Rothbard, that libertarian policy X is justified on the grounds of both liberty and utility. What are the chances that the world just happens to line up in such a way that perfect justice and liberty also maximize social welfare in every instance? He calls himself a “post-libertarian” in part because he believes that the empirical evidence is unsettled as to the frontiers of the proper (i.e., utility-maximizing) roles of government. And he believes that it is a mark in favor of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy that rights libertarians are extremely reluctant to admit that any of their policy conclusions might not maximize social welfare.

Now, I would make several points in response. First, (more…)

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The WSJ has an editorial today entitled “Entitlement Nation” in which it outlines America’s political history that has led to so many millions of us today receiving, even living off, payments of money, goods, or services from the government. The numbers are shocking: “50.5 million Americans are on Medicaid, 46.5 million are on Medicare, 52 million on Social Security, five million on SSI, 7.5 million on unemployment insurance, and 44.6 million on food stamps and other nutrition programs. Some 24 million get the earned-income tax credit, a cash income supplement.”

The Journal rightly argues, “Congress has made so many promises to so many Americans that there is no conceivable way those promises can be kept.” It is because the current debt-ceiling negotiations are not even discussing the drastic changes to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security that would be needed to keep us fiscally afloat that they are really just playing pretend. We are still looking for the proverbial Adult In The Room. 

When the subject of reforming the Big Three entitlement programs arises, one often hears, especially from people receiving payments from them, some version of: “I paid into those programs, so I’m entitled to get my money back.” It seems like a reasonable position: people should get what they paid for, especially when they were promised to get what they paid for.

The problem is that what you paid is long gone. The money you paid over your working career was spent immediately on all manner of government cornucopia—programs, benefits, bureaus, agencies, institutes, centers, initiatives, divisions, projects, expenditures, studies, commissions, summits, departments, and on and on. You may not have noticed, or may not have been paying attention, but every single penny that was taken from your paychecks was spent. Not saved, not invested: spent. So it is now gone. Indeed, it is more than gone, since what has been spent is a lot more than what came in—which means that not only was every penny they took from you spent, but they’ve promised others a lot more of your, or someone’s, pennies.

The obvious question must now be asked aloud: If all that money, and then some, has already been spent, what is funding those entitlement programs right now, today? Answer: it is being extracted from other people’s paychecks, and financed by debt that other people will have to pay in the future. People receiving entitlement payments now are living off the money taken, or promised to be taken, from other people.

Should it be this way? Should the government have made promises it could not keep? Should it be the case that the government actually spent the money they took from you instead of saving or investing it? No, no, and no. Alas, what should be often is not.

The moral status of some people living off wealth taken from others, as so many millions of us Americans now are doing, is a separate question. I have my own view about it, but coming to a correct moral judgment about it requires first coming to a proper understanding of the situation.

It might well have been your money that was taken from you all those years, and, especially in retrospect, it might well have been wrong of the government to take it from you. But the money you are receiving now is not that money: it is someone else’s, someone who no doubt also would claim ownership of it. If you accept the money, you have to face that fact squarely.

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In general, libertarians oppose laws requiring a physician’s prescription for purchase or dispensing of controlled drugs, on the grounds that these restrictions are paternalistic infringements on an individual’s right to choose for himself or herself. But under what conditions might libertarians support prescription laws?

Libertarian activist Rachel Mills recently asked on Facebook whether baby formula should be available by prescription and for medical reasons only. Given that there is clear evidence for vast benefits from exclusive breastfeeding up to six months, and no medical evidence for any advantage of infant formula over breast milk at any stage of an infant’s life, it would seem that responsible mothers would do everything they could to breastfeed rather than feed formula. In some cases, of course, breastfeeding might not be an option, due to disease, adoption, etc. What’s important here from a libertarian point of view is that there are third-party effects: a mother’s choice to feed formula can harm her baby.

So it’s not obviously crazy for a libertarian to advocate a drastic increase in government regulation of infant formula. On the other hand, before taking any policy position here, we have to consider relevant “sociological facts,” including the fact that mothers generally want what’s best for their babies. Is government regulation really necessary? Breastfeeding is on the rise, although it’s nowhere near where it ought to be (babies should be breastfed up to a year of age and exclusively so up to six months). Also: do we want to set a precedent for invasive government regulation of family life whenever science shows a possible rationale? On balance, I think there is a strong practical (but not “in principle”) case to be made against regulating baby formula in this way.

One area where I do support retaining prescription laws is for the dispensing of antibiotics. Due to overprescription of antibiotics, drug-resistant strains of bacteria have emerged. It is increasingly important to limit the taking of antibiotics to situations in which they are truly necessary. Misuse of antibiotics can be viewed as a violation of rights – an act that potentially fortifies microorganisms that attack others’ bodies.

Otherwise, however, I think the libertarian case against prescription laws is strong. Let customers decide whether to take painkillers – or chemotherapy for that matter. Sane adults will want to take good medical advice into account when making these decisions, and it ought ultimately to be their choice whether or not to do so.

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There’s an interesting new philosophy blog called “Bleeding Heart Libertarians,” featuring an all-star cast of Andrew J. Cohen, Daniel Shapiro, Jacob T. Levy, James Stacey Taylor, Jason F. Brennan, and Matt Zwolinski. Actually, some of the participants reject the term “libertarian”; one of the first posts, by Jason Brennan, is entitled, “Neoclassical Liberalism: How I’m Not a Libertarian.” Provocative stuff – check it out.

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Rumble Rumble

Well, my guest blogging stint here has gone somewhat awry. My post on trade relations was sent in Tuesday morning last week, my time. By serendipity, the University’s public relations office called a half hour later asking if I could do an interview with Canterbury Television that afternoon on US-NZ trade relations. I said I could, but that I couldn’t leave campus; they were happy to come to my office for 2 PM. Very lucky call, that one.

I was putting on my coat at ten to one to meet a friend from the NZ campus libertarian organisation for lunch when things started moving. We’d had a very big earthquake in Canterbury back in September – a 7.1 in the middle of the night experienced from my bed on the second floor of an old wood-framed house. The next big aftershocks – the 4.9 on Boxing Day and the 5.1 mid-January – were enjoyed either at ground floor or while in bed. I got pretty good at guessing the magnitude of aftershocks from my office. For any decent one, folks would throw their guesses up onto the #eqnz Twitter hashtag. The crowdsourced seismograph performed admirably well* – often within a decimal point of the actual reading. But I wasn’t well calibrated for anything over around 4.8 while up on the fifth floor of the University of Canterbury’s Commerce building.

And so I didn’t have a very good read on how big this one was. I guessed a bit bigger than Boxing Day. That was more than a little wrong. The Canterbury Television building had collapsed; I don’t know whether the reporter who was to have come out to see me at Uni had left yet. They’re still pulling out bodies. Glad I didn’t go to them.

We came out pretty lucky. A tall heavy bookcase fell between rather than on my wife and a coworker when they were leaving her office. The kids were fine at home with my parents, who visit to escape the Manitoba winters. This year it’s been an adventure holiday for them.

Enough whining, especially as other folks have stories far better than mine.  Back to economics. Or, at least to economically informed whining.

Half the petrol stations in town were closed due to power outages. Most of the others couldn’t keep enough petrol in stock to meet demand. The port at Lyttelton where fuel’s usually offloaded took damage as did the tunnel which serves as main access for fuel tankers getting from port to stations around town. We temporarily had to source fuel from Timaru – the next port town a couple hours south of here.

We were caught in a bad equilibrium. We were assured that fuel supplies were sufficient to meet normal petrol demand. Normally, folks fill up, wait till the tank is near empty, then fill up again. When everybody knows that there will be enough petrol there tomorrow, and everybody knows that everybody knows that, things work out just fine. Suppose that everyone normally goes seven days between fills and suppose for simplicity that folks are evenly distributed across normal fill days. Expectationally, stations have to have enough fuel to fill the tanks of one eighth of the cars in town. When natural disaster strikes, precautionary demand for petrol jumps. Instead of waiting ’till the tank is down to an eighth, people fill up if the tank is half full. Because they might just have to drive pretty far pretty fast if things get worse. If we moved seamlessly to the new equilibrium, that would be simple. Twice as many transactions, each with half as much volume dispersed.

The problem is the transition. For a short burst, the petrol stations in town have to get a whole lot of folks filled up. After the transition, they go back to pumping the same amount of petrol to twice as many customers. During the transition it’s tough – especially if supplies are tight. Petrol stations are able to handle big increases in demand, if they’re prepared for them. Everybody fills up before heading out for holiday weekends and we tend not to have problems. But when it’s coupled with surprise and cutting the number of stations by a third or so and restricting tanker supply to the stations – we get queuing and empty petrol stations.

The civil defense folks could well have been right that there was enough fuel in Christchurch to meet normal demand. But meeting normal demand would seem at the boundary of capacity when the number of stations is reasonably heavily reduced. Meeting this kind of transitional increase in demand is impossible. But in the temporary shortage case, everybody tries to be first mover; you only hurt yourself by holding back as there may not be fuel left next time you drive by.

How to solve it? I suggested a temporary doubling of petrol prices. Let the petrol stations coordinate a $2/litre price increase that lasts long enough to get the running stations filled to capacity with fuel – a couple days would have done it. Those with urgent need would buy the expensive petrol; others would wait the couple days. Unfortunately, this would likely result in the lynching of petrol station owners. And maybe me with them. Normally we want big price increases to help encourage more supply to come into the market – the excess profits draw petrol tankers from farther away. But it’s not terribly plausible that there’s much margin for increased effort. The petrol companies were flat out getting more petrol here. So we could then call the extra $2/litre an earthquake surcharge with proceeds to be used for the various earthquake relief funds.

It’s unfortunate that folks’ first reaction to price increases in emergencies is “this guy is trying to screw me” rather than “man, supplies are tight!” I can’t count the times I’ve heard folks arguing that cell phone calls should be free in Christchurch for the duration of the emergency, despite lots of calls in the early hours for folks to keep off phone because power outages had massively decreased capacity and folks trapped in buildings needed to be able to call or text for help.

Most folks move from “We need it more” to “It should be cheaper.” And so stores do better by keeping prices constant and letting supply run out – the reputational costs of price hikes outweigh the profits from increasing prices and meeting demand. It’s an inefficient equilibrium. I’d even call it a market failure. And, a remediable one, at least for a temporary problem like petrol supplies. Government could ask the petrol companies to hike prices for a very short period, with the excess revenues going to the relief fund for the emergency. If it induces a black market with arbitrageurs bringing fuel in from out of town to sell above the out-of-town price but below the government surcharge price, so much the better!

More bizarre have been arguments that price increases would threaten the social solidarity on which cities rely during crises. I’d like to think that we’re a bit more resilient than that.

The fuel crisis is now long over, at least in the parts of town with power. But for a few days, folks in the Eastern suburbs with low fuel tanks were effectively trapped there by not knowing whether it would be possible to get fuel at any price if they went to the part of town where the stores were open. Those suburbs are also the poorer parts of town that were worst hit in this quake, the epicentre of which was east of town and shallow. For all the folks who harped on how a fuel price rise would hurt the poor, it was the poorest parts of town that were worst hit for want of petrol.

With no power and water in South New Brighton, we made a 6 am (no traffic – would have run out of fuel in traffic) dash out of that part of town late last week after I’d scouted a route by bike that would get us around the river – all the bridges were out – to the other side of town. We hope to get back home when services are restored over there. And hopefully when life gets back to normal, I’ll return to finish the guest-blogging session.

* Geolocated Twitter earthquake magnitude estimates combined with seismograph readings would have to be interesting data for somebody.

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Pileus is a “virtue libertarian” blog, but we tend to write much more about the latter than the former. This post is different. I make the case that consumption of pornography is immoral but, because it does not violate anyone else’s rights (leaving aside the case of child pornography), it should not be legally prohibited or discouraged. Therefore, this is a post about ethics, not politics. Unfortunately, libertarians have too often confused the two (a good example is Reason‘s wall-to-wall, comrades-in-arms coverage of porn magnate John Stagliano’s trial.)

Libertarians have often been uncomfortable with the idea of self-regarding duties. How could you ever violate a moral duty to yourself? But a moment’s reflection reveals that people divide the self all the time. We apparently believe that it is possible to respect oneself, or to fail to respect oneself, to esteem oneself, or to fail to esteem oneself. There doesn’t seem to be anything semantically or philosophically problematic about the idea that one could fail to do everything for oneself that one could. Imagine a person who is a pure altruist – who never takes care of his own needs but instead lives his life completely for others. He makes himself the slave of others. Surely we would say that this person is being insufficiently selfish, that he is disrespecting his own dignity. It is possible not to do enough for one’s own interests or dignity.

So self-regarding duties exist. But is there a duty not to consume pornography? Conservatives (more…)

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I caught a little bit of flak around the Internet for my piece, “Why Isn’t Violence the Answer?,” during the early days of the Egypt protests. I was galled by official demands from the U.S. government and other places that Egyptian protestors remain nonviolent, no matter what. Thankfully, significant violence wasn’t required to get rid of Mubarak, although if protestors had not fought back against the thugs that invaded Tahrir Square, who knows what would have happened?

Libya is an even clearer case of just rebellion. Gaddafi has been one of the region’s most repressive dictators, and his reaction to what started as peaceful protests shows us all we need to know about his regime. But if Libyans hadn’t undertaken an armed rebellion, there would be no chance of getting him out of power.

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U.S. government officials continue to lecture the Egyptian demonstrators on how to go about their business. President Obama:

He said he had told Mr Mubarak to respect the rights of the Egyptian people and refrain from using violence against peaceful protesters – but he said the protesters also had a responsibility to express themselves peacefully.

But why? Mubarak’s regime is a wicked one, propped up by the U.S. taxpayer. Now, it is understandable that government officials on the same side of international rivalries tend to stick up for each other, even if it means standing against their own people. (There is a reason why governments send their own people to die in wars for political goals but officially refuse to countenance assassination under any circumstances.) What is more curious is that Obama, Biden, Gibbs, and the rest are so glib in throwing out the tired line. Aren’t they afraid that Americans paying attention will be outraged that U.S. officials continue to insist that the Egyptian people exercise restraint even as their own casualties mount? Surely many of us of feeling around the world recognize that if the protestors find it prudential or useful at some point to storm the presidential palace and dispense street justice to Mubarak and his minions, there is no conceivable ethical reason for them to shrink from the task. Isn’t it on one of our state flags? Sic semper tyrannis.

EDIT: clarified some of the language.

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I gave a talk to the Yeshiva College Philosophy Club recently in which I made the following claim:

In my view, what gives people dignity, what is admirable and noble in them, is precisely their capacity for moral agency. It is when they have the liberty to make free choices but are required to take responsibility for their choices that human beings express their uniquely moral natures and become moral beings. Similarly, it is when we give people the liberty to exercise their judgment but hold them accountable for their decisions that we respect their moral natures. Kant was right that human dignity follows from one’s ability to choose ends for oneself, and that the essence of humanity is as a freely choosing agent.

During the question-and-answer session, an insightful student asked me whether it followed from my position that children and others who do not (yet) possess an ability to choose freely therefore do not possess dignity or nobility.

A good, challenging question, because it exposes the limits of my position. I would like to sketch a brief answer.

I think my answer has to be that such people do not, in fact, possess the dignity that results from moral agency. But it does not follow from that that they possess no dignity, nor that they do not possess something else making them inherently valuable, namely preciousness.

I did not argue that dignity result only from moral agency; rather, that moral agency results in a peculiar dignity. So, lacking moral agency entails lacking moral-agency dignity; lacking moral agency means not possessing the peculiar dignity that results from moral agency. But I believe there is another species of dignity, namely that which results from the inherent value that human beings have qua human beings. I call this inherent value preciousness, and I argue that it results in its own peculiar species of dignity.

One reason to respect people’s expression of their moral agency is because the dignity that agency constitutes is inherently valuable. We respect, or should respect, people because of this inherent value, and respecting that value entails respecting its manifestations, which includes moral agency. But I believe people have inherent value even independent of their moral agency, as human beings qua human beings.

This means, I suggest, that although we do not have to respect the choices of human beings who do not possess moral agency—e.g., children or others who do not have or have lost the capacity of free judgment with which to make free choices—we nevertheless do have to respect their inherent value or preciousness. A child is precious even if not yet a moral agent; a person with dementia is precious even if no longer a moral agent.

What this means in practice will depend on the particular circumstances of individual cases. But in general it will mean that we must treat such human beings with humanity, consideration, and charity befitting their preciousness. Such treatment will include using our judgment regarding such things as their well being, their welfare, their happiness, and so on, and it will require many acts of beneficence, all situation- and person-specific. Such acts of beneficence thus require a great deal of localized knowledge, which is one reason they cannot be specified in advance or by third parties.

Regarding children in particular, except in the rare cases of actual, permanent incapacity, respect for children’s preciousness will transition over time into respect for their moral agency, entailing the freedom and accountability mentioned in the quotation above.

What I have said here leaves many issues unresolved. For example, from where, exactly, does humanity’s inherent value, or preciousness, derive? Is humanity’s preciousness greater than that of nonhuman animals? How does a person’s criminal activity affect his dignity, or the respect we must show him?

I have answers, or attempts at answers, to these questions, but I will leave them for another time. Here my goals were to clarify how, on my conception of human nobility and dignity, people without moral agency still deserve respect, and to indicate, in broad strokes, the kinds of obligations we have toward such people.

We have had here on Pileus some sophisticated discussion of our duties or responsibilities toward children; what I say here does not substantially improve on that. The strength of my position, such as it is, relates I believe to its illumination of the ways we should, and the ways we should not, treat all the normally functioning adults with whom we come into contact—who are neither children nor incompetent, and should not be treated as if they were.

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Should We Care About Inequality?

Left-libertarian market anarchist Roderick Long argues that worrying about socioeconomic inequality as such does not count as envy. He gives some examples in support of the position, including a utility that will shut off service to a non-paying customer, while a customer can’t shut off payment to a utility with poor service, and a tenant who has to agree to broad provisions in a rental contract.

Long believes that these sorts of problems are ultimately the result of government intervention, but Bryan Caplan responds that existing markets don’t really work in such an anti-consumer way, and that to the extent that government gets involved currently, they often tilt things away from producers. Long’s response to Caplan is here. I may be the closest thing to a left-libertarian on this blog, but I tend to agree with Caplan that left-libertarians “make mountains of mole-hills, then implausibly blame government for mountain-making.” I recall a conversation I had with a minor landlord in the Boston area a few years ago, and he detailed all the ways in which government makes it possible for someone to live rent-free on his property more or less indefinitely – and there is a certain group of tenants who routinely take advantage.


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This semester I will be teaching a political philosophy course for the first time since graduate school, and have just finalized my syllabus. For all the ethicists and political philosophers out there – what do you consider to be the most underrated works of political philosophy for each period (ancient, modern, contemporary)? To elaborate, I’m essentially asking what you consider to be the best political philosophy in terms of originality and persuasiveness of argument, which one would not expect to find in standard readers.

Not really being a political philosopher, I haven’t read all that widely in the field, but, off the top of my head, here are a few works that I believe are underrated:

Early Modern

  • Immanuel Kant, Philosophy of Right (often overlooked part of Kant’s oeuvre, and admittedly maddeningly poorly argued at times, such as when Kant argues that no matter how terrible the state, it can never do wrong or be justly resisted, but the first few chapters are a succinct deduction of formal principles of liberty from Kant’s general ethical system. You can’t argue with this: “Freedom is Independence of the compulsory Will of another; and in so far as it can co-exist with the Freedom of all according to a universal Law, it is the one sole original, inborn Right belonging to every man in virtue of his Humanity.”)

19th Cent.

Early 20th Cent.

  • Franz Oppenheimer, The State (perhaps more anthropology than political philosophy, but relevant all the same)


UPDATE: I should note that most of these are not in my syllabus for this class, mostly b/c it’s an intro class, and I want students to be acquainted with the well-known classics first. However, I do recommend them to readers who are already familiar with the “big names.”


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An interesting but occasionally infuriating article by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe argues that research into the psychology of disgust undermines systems of morality. Here are some claims that I find particularly poorly justified:

The agnosticism central to scientific inquiry is part of what feels so dangerous to philosophers and theologians. By telling a story in which morality grows out of the vagaries of human evolution, the new moral psychologists threaten the claim of universality on which most moral systems depend — the idea that certain things are simply right, others simply wrong. If the evolutionary story about the moral emotions is correct, then human beings, by being a less social species or even having a significantly different prehistoric diet, might have ended up today with an entirely different set of religions and ethical codes. Or we might never have evolved the concept of morals at all.


To Haidt, all of these results buttress his belief that moral reasoning is simply an after-the-fact story we create to explain our instinctive emotional reactions, in this case a strongly held but arbitrary feeling of disgust. “Moral reasoning is often like the press secretary for a secretive administration — constantly generating the most persuasive arguments it can muster for policies whose true origins and goals are unknown,” he wrote in a 2007 paper in Science.

I’m sure that for some people on some issues disgust can ground their moral judgments. But that’s not the same as saying that moral judgment simply is disgust – which is a philosophical question that no amount of empirical science could ever answer. (The article doesn’t give any space to philosophical views on the matter.) Moreover, I think it far more likely that in most circumstances disgust is a post facto emotional response to something we already believe to be wrong on other grounds. Indeed, the article does present some evidence on this score:

But to David Pizarro, the most interesting — and perhaps most important — question to answer is how flexible disgust is, how much it can change. Fifty years ago, many white Americans freely admitted to being disgusted by the thought of drinking from the same drinking fountain as a black person. Today far fewer do. How did that change? Did their sense of disgust ebb as they spent more time in integrated restaurants and workplaces and buses, or did they find ways to actively suppress their feelings? Pizarro isn’t sure, but he’d like to find out.

Did people stop being racist because they stopped finding integration disgusting, or did they stop finding integration disgusting because they decided it was OK? The latter seems like the only plausible account.


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Our esteemed ringleader Mr. Cleveland has prodded me to do a post on “children’s rights,” following last week’s discussion of abortion. My musings here are largely based on a paper (PDF) I did a number of years ago.

What do parents owe their children? And may these obligations be legally enforced? Most of us rightly think that children are unlike adults in two ways. First, children have a right to positive provision that adults may not enjoy. Parents have a duty (that ought to be legally enforced) to provide for their children’s basic welfare. Allowing your child to starve or expelling it into the street like a trespasser is both morally wrong and punishable. Second, parents (and perhaps the state) enjoy the right and indeed obligation to treat their children paternalistically in order to guide their development to full rationality. They have the duty and therefore right (“ought” implies “may”) to prevent their children from, e.g., taking harmful drugs or having sex before the age of maturity. Libertarians would certainly say that no one has the right to prevent sane adults from doing these things. So how do we justify this moral distinction between children and adults?

Rights are correlative with obligations. So if children have a right to provision, parents have a duty to provide it. But to whom? Are parents’ duties actually to their children as such? Ordinarily, we think of rights as alienable, i.e., you can waive them if you want. But children don’t have the ability to consent to waiving their rights. So there’s still something a bit weird here. And what about parents’ duty/right to treat children paternalistically? Do children have a duty to obey their parents?

My answer is no, children do not have a duty to obey their parents. First, many children are too young to understand moral duties, so clearly they can have no moral duties. Second, children did not consent to being born or to living in the family in which they find themselves. So how can you acquire a positive obligation to obey someone else if you never did anything positive to assume such an obligation? And how could such an obligation, if it exists, suddenly disappear at maturity?

I would argue that children have rights in virtue of the rationality they will eventually enjoy. If raised tolerably well, children will grow into fully rational, capable adults with the regular panoply of natural rights.(*) Children as children may not know what their best interests are, but as adults they will. If those interests are compromised, it is ultimately the mature, self-aware adult who suffers. (The transition from childhood to maturity is gradual and continuous, but I’m using binary categories here for clarity.)

Parents have a duty to promote the development of their children into rational, capable adults. Depriving them of the necessities of life and of intellectual development violates their children’s rights. Moreover, parents have a duty to try to protect their children from their own harmful behaviors, and any positive action that anyone else may undertake to harm a child’s basic interests is wrong. On this basis, it is appropriate for a government to enforce “age of consent” laws for sex, drugs, etc. to prevent harms accruing to children who don’t know any better, and to buttress the parents’ right to safeguard their children’s development. The children may not realize any harm now, but the self-aware adults who they will become will.(**)

That selfsame respect for the rationality of a person that requires us to treat children paternalistically requires us to treat adults nonpaternalistically. Libertarianism, as a distinctive moral philosophy of natural rights, only makes sense if we draw clear distinctions among rational persons, not-yet-rational persons, and nonrational nonpersons. Treating adults paternalistically is wrong precisely because it is like treating them like children, the not-yet-rational. It disrespects them as persons. Utilitarianism, by contrast, makes no distinctions on the basis of rationality: both children and adults may be treated paternalistically. As a matter of practice, children probably require more paternalistic treatment than adults, but whenever adults tend to make systematic errors about their own interests, it’s appropriate on utilitarian grounds for others (the government) to “nudge” them in the right direction – libertarians reject this view. In the end, then, what seemed like a paradox for libertarianism – different rights for adults and children – turns out to be essential to the core of the philosophy.

(*)It may be argued that normal adults aren’t rational all the time. But what I mean by “rational” here is that a person has the capability for logical reflection and comprehension of moral rights and duties. This doesn’t mean that the capability is always exercised.

(**)Ages of consent are admittedly arbitrary, and there may be some children below the age of consent who are mature enough to make rational decisions about the prohibited behaviors. Ideally, I would favor a high age of consent to protect the rights of even “late bloomers,” along with a judicial emancipation procedure that would allow people below the age of consent to acquire some or all of the rights of maturity.


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David Bernstein has an eminently reasonable take on private-sector anti-discrimination law over at Cato Unbound. Excerpt:

[T]o say the least, segregation and exclusion of African Americans in public places in the South wasn’t entirely a voluntary choice of business owners.  Jim Crow segregation involved the equivalent of a white supremacist cartel.  The cartel was enforced not just by overt government regulation like segregation laws, but also by the implicit threat of private violence and extra-legal harassment of anyone who challenged the racist status quo.  This violence and extra-legal harassment was often undertaken with the approval of local officials; the latter, in fact, were often the perpetrators.

To break the southern Jim Crow cartel there were two options: (1) a federal law invalidating Jim Crow laws, along with a massive federal takeover of local government to prevent violence and threats against, and extralegal harassment of, those who chose to integrate; or (2) a federal law banning discrimination by private parties, so that threats of violence and harassment would generally be met with an appeal to the potential victim’s obligation to obey federal law.  The former option was arguably more appealing from a libertarian perspective, but it was completely impractical.

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Peter Singer’s views on population control have come up on this blog quite recently. Singer is also, of course, a hardcore animal rights-er who believes that all animals (at least, vertebrates) have the same moral status. But one doesn’t have to be a utilitarian or someone who believes that animals actually have rights that ought to be legally enforced to think that animals have some moral status. Here’s Robert Nozick’s quasi-Kantian position on animals (linky):

Animals count for something. Some higher animals, at least, ought to be given some weight in people’s deliberations about what to do. It is difficult to prove this. (It is also difficult to prove that people count for something!) We first shall adduce particular examples, and then arguments. If you felt like snapping your fingers, perhaps to the beat of some music, and you knew that by some strange causal connection your snapping your fingers would cause 10,000 contented, unowned cows to die after great pain and suffering, or even painlessly and instantaneously, would it be per­fectly all right to snap your fingers? Is there some reason why it would be morally wrong to do so?

Nozick argues that there are some things we should not do to animals, regardless of their consequences for humans. This position seems reasonable on an intuitive level; it is difficult to imagine that there is nothing wrong with torturing thousands of animals to death. Anyone who’s interacted with other animals knows that they possess some spark of intelligence and emotion, even if not full self-awareness, which elicits empathy in us (and possibly in them?).

So what about eating animals? In the 21st century post-industrial world, eating animals is unnecessary for human health – in fact, Americans eat too much meat. Eating animals, let us concede, adds a little bit of pleasure to the eating experience for humans. Does one have to be a utilitarian to weigh the small pleasure that humans receive from eating animals against the significant pain that the animals endure? I don’t think so. If one believes that animals have some moral worth but lack rights, then consuming them without any real need might be worse than not eating them – or even morally wrong (as Nozick believed).

There are of course other arguments for vegetarianism having to do with the health of humans and the environment. And it may be that some of these considerations turn the other way as well – certainly, strict veganism isn’t healthy for humans without vitamin supplements. But if we just consider the animal welfare argument, how far does it take us?

Incidentally, the animal-welfare argument for vegetarianism implies that eating invertebrates is OK (Slate on oyster-eating veganism here). Also, it probably implies that eating eggs and dairy, which require the slaughter of animals (male chicks in the former case, calves in the latter), is wrong.


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