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Archive for the ‘Locke’ Category

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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If you read enough political philosophy, at some point you wonder whether there really is anything new under the sun. On the heels of Edward Snowden’s wonderful and astonishing leaks, we get this:

U.S. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, called Snowden “a defector” who should be turned over to the United States with an eye toward harsh prosecution.

“This person is dangerous to the country,” King said on CNN’s “Starting Point” on Monday.

While Snowden has not yet been charged with a crime, the Justice Department said Sunday night that it had begun a preliminary investigation into what it called “the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access.”

I could not read this without recalling John Locke’s words in defense of revolution (casting out of the government) in the Second Discourse. Locke responds to those who insist on the immorality, the injustice, perhaps even the violation of natural law involved in rebellion. First, Locke’s justification for revolution:

Sec. 222. The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they choose and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence. Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who. have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society. What I have said here, concerning the legislative in general, holds true also concerning the supreme executor, who having a double trust put in him, both to have a part in the legislative, and the supreme execution of the law, acts against both, when he goes about to set up his own arbitrary will as the law of the society.

Then, Locke responds to the objection that this rationale is a justification for trivial incidence of revolution:

Sec. 226. …this doctrine of a power in the people of providing for their safety a-new, by a new legislative, when their legislators have acted contrary to their trust, by invading their property, is the best fence against rebellion, and the probablest means to hinder it: for rebellion being an opposition, not to persons, but authority, which is founded only in the constitutions and laws of the government; those, whoever they be, who by force break through, and by force justify their violation of them, are truly and properly rebels: for when men, by entering into society and civil-government, have excluded force, and introduced laws for the preservation of property, peace, and unity amongst themselves, those who set up force again in opposition to the laws, do rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of war, and are properly rebels: which they who are in power, (by the pretense they have to authority, the temptation of force they have in their hands, and the flattery of those about them) being likeliest to do; the properest way to prevent the evil, is to show them the danger and injustice of it, who are under the greatest temptation to run into it.

Locke is claiming, in effect, that it is not those who rise up in response to despotic government that are guilty of injustice, but those who use their authority to violate the trust of the governed. It does seem likely that Snowden violated some laws here, but King and his ilk are ignoring the prior question, whether in the conduct of its work the executive branch is guilty of the first violations of our fundamental law, the Constitution. It is certainly possible the answer to that is negative, but there can be no doubt that is the right question to ask, and that without an answer to it there is no moral judgment to be made about Snowden’s conduct.

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Matt Zwolinski of Bleeding Heart Libertarians has written an excellent series of posts on the libertarian justification of property rights. Here‘s the latest.

The first and most important thing to note about both Locke and Nozick’s arguments is that, unlike utilitarian arguments, they are individualistic rather than collectivistic in nature. For the utilitarian, all that matters in justifying an action (or an institution like property rights) is its effect on overall well-being. On the utilitarian view, then, property rights are justified if the overall benefits they produce are greater than the overall harms they produce, regardless of how those benefits and harms are distributed among different individuals.

For Locke and Nozick, on the other hand, property rights are only justified if they benefit (or at least do not harm) each and every individual. Now, this probably seems like an extremely tough argumentative hurdle for the defender of property to clear. Could it really be the case that each and every individual is better off under a system of private property rights than he would have been without one?

The answer is, or can be, yes. Almost everyone today is vastly better off, and freer, because of the system of private property rights. In those rare, possibly pathological cases in which a person is worse off due to the system of property rights, the Lockean justification of property rights provides a rationale for some kind of “re”distribution as a matter of justice, a point that Matt notes at the end but defers to a future essay. In the event, this is one area where I tend to agree with BHL’ers: there should be a basic income of sort to replace the welfare state, which would probably have to be set at a few thousand dollars a year in the present-day United States in order to ensure that literally everyone is better off due to the private property system, despite its coercive nature.

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