Lazy linking on Leftist labor libertarianism

Try saying that three times fast.

For a while now I’ve been urging libertarians and the labor movement to take a more serious and sympathetic look at one another. (Cf. GT 2004-05-01: Free the Unions (and all political prisoners!), GT 2005-03-23: El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! and GT 2005-03-31: Anarquistas por La Causa for representative examples.) Just as with radical libertarianism and radical feminism I think that the supposedly obvious and unbridgeable opposition between the two is the result more of terminological difficulties and shifting political alliances over the course of the 20th century than any deep or principled gulf. The best way to see this is with more engaged discussion: fewer polemics, more history, more earnest questioning, and more listening. So I’m excited to see a lot of interesting new material just in the past couple of weeks from libertarians (mostly but not exclusively left-libertarians) trying to get clear on the questions and hammer out some of the answers about the prospect for a libertarianism that has a place for workers organizing freely, and a wildcat labor movement that frees itself from the smothering patronage of the State. Here’s a bit of lazy linking to the discussion so far.

  • Brad Spangler (2005-12-03): War, Socialism, and Precision in Thinking writes on the need to disentangle the different meanings attached to the words capitalism and socialism (each of them has at least one traditional meaning that’s perfectly consistent with the peaceful economic cooperation, and one that’s directly antagonistic to it). Brad protests the fuzzy thinking that typically comes about from running the terms freely together, and urges libertarians to realize that If anything that is voluntary on all sides is, at the very least, acceptable to the point that it at least can not righteously be opposed by force, then one has to come to grips that a stateless society will have capitalistic and socialistic aspects in practice. Hippy communes. Farmers co-ops. Employee owned enterprises. Workers syndicates. Unions. … Ultimately, vulgar libertarians, on this point anyway, fail to distinguish libertarianism from personal preference for a particular class of business models.

  • Roderick Long at Austro-Athenian Empire (2005-12-04): Freedom and the Firm asks What will firms look like in a free society? He points out the important trade-off that you face when you decide whether to get business done with a centralized, amalgamated firm, or a small-scale, decentralized operations like family shops and worker’s co-ops: larger size can mean lower transaction costs, but it also comes at the cost of calculational chaos. (The incentive problems and knowledge problems that libertarians have pointed out in central planning don’t evaporate when the central planning is done by corporate rather than government bureaucrats.) Roderick points out some of the ways in which state capitalism distorts the trade-off in favor of big, centralized firms; Leviathan, as always, is Behemoth’s greatest ally: We don’t have a free market, however; instead we have a highly regulated market. For familiar reasons, such regulations hamper the less affluent more than the more affluent, and so successful firms will tend to become somewhat insulated from competition by less established firms, thus removing one check on their inefficiency. And as Kevin Carson points out, regulatory standardisation also decreases competition among the successful firms — a form of de facto cartelisation. Government regulation thus lowers the costs associated with size and hierarchy more than it lowers the associated benefits; it stands to reason, then, that firms in a genuine free-market context could be expected to be smaller and less hierarchical than they tend to be today. This is doubly true once one takes into account the increased competition for workers that a less regulated economy would presumably see (assuming that workers generally prefer less hierarchical work environments).

  • Kevin Carson (2005-12-08): Socialist Definitional Free-for-All: Part I reviews a recent donnybrook over the meaning of socialism and whether voluntary workers’ co-ops and other forms of state-free direct worker control over the means of production are (1) instances of socialism, and (2) compatible with libertarianism. Bithead makes an ass of himself; Knapp holds his own; John T. Kennedy directs some good critical questions at Knapp; Knapp offers some good replies. Carson adds his own Extended Commentary, placing the debate in the historical context of the thought of late-19th and early-20th century libertarians such as Thomas Hodgskin, Benjamin Tucker, and Franz Oppenheimer, who explicitly considered themselves (1) socialists, (2) supporters of organized labor, and (3) radical advocates of laissez-faire in economics. Carson also offers some interesting historical notes on the individualists’ economic thought

    Individualist anarchism, the strand of socialism that most closely approximates my own position, doesn’t place that much importance on ownership of the means of production (leaving aside the views of Tucker et al on occupancy-based ownership of land, anyway). Although some strands of mutualism tended toward a much more active affinity for cooperative organization of production, and considered explicitly cooperativist arrangements would likely predominate in a stateless society, the American individualist branch of mutualism placed much more emphasis on the conditions of exchange than the organization of production. … What mattered to him was that, without state enforcement of special privileges for capital, and without artificial scarcity rents resulting from such privileges, the natural wage of labor in a free market would be its full product. And without the state’s enforcement of artificial scarcity in land and capital, jobs would be competing for workers instead of the other way around.

    And Carson points out that the debate is often confused by the fact that all sides tend to talk about coercion and property as if everyone already had a perfectly clear and common conception of what sorts of things can count as your property and under what conditions. Libertarians tend to broadly agree on central cases, but when the debate is about something more substantial than name-tags or banner colors, it usually comes down to substantive disagreements over peripheral cases:

    All the parties to the debate tend to throw around the term coercion, in discussing whether coercion is essential to collective ownership of the means of production, without addressing the prior question of what constitutes coercion. Now I would argue that whether the establishment and enforcement of collective ownership is coercive depends on what set of property rights rules you start out with. Forcibly invading someone’s rightful property, by definition, is coercion; but using force to defend one’s rightful property claims against invasion is not. So the question of whether force is coercive depends on who the rightful owner is. When the parties to the dispute adhere to two separate sets of rules for property rights, they will disagree on who is the aggressor and who is the defender.

  • Kevin Carson (2005-12-08): Socialist Definitional Free-for-All, Part II offers a lengthy follow-up where he assembles quotes from posts Roderick, Brad, and me on definitions of socialism and capitalism, the size of firms, and organized labor, and adds his own exposition and commentary. Among other things, he points out one of the important ways in which unionization can serve as a road to, rather than a roadblock against, workers adjusting pay, security, and conditions to something like the marginal product of their labor: Regardless of the long-run market incentives to pay labor its full product and treat people like actual human beings, in the short run the uncertainty and potential disruption of being an at-will employee can be quite a hassle. For the benefit of those who have been living on Planet Cato these many years and never had direct experience working for a boss, I’d like to point out that the average boss can fuck your life up in some really unpleasant ways before the market disadvantages of doing so are finally brought home to him. And, as some radical historians of workplace relations have pointed out, a management policy of harassing selected subgroups of workers and dividing them against each other may produce benefits, in the form of reduced labor solidarity and bargaining power, that outweigh the alleged irrationality costs. On the other hand, the benefits of contractually-enforced stability and predictability are just as real to a wage-laborer as they are to the parties to any other kind of contract.

That’s a rather dense thicket of interlinking posts; moving aside from this mutualist admiration society, there’s also been good discussion elsewhere:

  • Joshua Holmes at No Treason (2005-12-09): Open Question about Libertarians and Unions asks What do libertarians have against labour unions? This question struck me the other day (because it was better than studying for Business Associations) and I wondered why libertarians have so much bile for labour unions. Holmes has a good breakdown of common corporatarian objections to unions and responses to them. A vigorous go-around on semantics, tactics, and principles follows in the comments.

  • Irfan Khawaja at Theory and Practice (2005-12-15): The Taylor Law and the Transit Strike: Some Questions asks for further discussion from libertarians and classical liberals about the status of strikes and work stoppages, and laws (such as the Taylor Law) which ban strikes by government employees:

    Is a strike—as Howard Dickman suggests in his book Industrial Democracy in America—just a glorified form of breach of contract? In that case, libertarianism justifies strike-breaking and scabdom, period. (Cf. Truman’s breaking up the railway and miner’s strikes in 1946.) Or does striking have a deeper justification in libertarian principles? To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t much normative discussion of this subject in the contemporary libertarian literature—a shame, considering the centrality of the issues.

    In comments, I suggest a focus on questions about individual rights to refuse to work and move on to the status of strikes from there; Irfan replies with more helpful questions and commentary.

This doesn’t end here. A week from now — 28 December 2005, 11:15 a.m.-1:15 p.m — The Molinari Society will be holding a symposium at APA Eastern Division in New York. The topic is going to be the debate between thick and thin libertarianism, and the thick side will be represented by Jack Ross’s Labor and Liberty: A Lost Ideal and an Unlikely New Alliance. Ross will read and I’ll be commenting on the essay. (Shorter me: the outline of Ross’s argument is correct and important; I’m not so confident about the details and I think there are some important questions and distinctions to be raised about the kind of labor organizing that libertarians should ally with.)

Hope to see you there!

35 replies to Lazy linking on Leftist labor libertarianism Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Labyrus

    Interesting post. The really divisive point (at least theoretically) between anarchism and (non-socialist) libertarianism is Property, yet far too often both camps discuss property as something that either exists or doesn’t, while in reality property rights are just that - entitlements to do several different things with certain capital.

    If you’ve never read P-J Proudhon’s What is Property?, I’d recomend it. Although many of the examples refer to a rather different economy than today’s, I think a lot of the arguments are still worth considering.

    I still think any discussion of property as a “right” needs to first justify why anyone has such rights, that to me seems to be the flaw in the libertarian analysis. I can accept rationally that people have an ethical right to access the means to their own survival a lot more easily than I can accept that people have a natural right to monopolize what is potentially someone else’s means of survival.

  2. Discussed at freedomdemocrats.org

    Freedom Democrats:

    The Labortarian Party!

    From RadGeek: Lazy linking on Leftist labor libertarianism. A smart article, chock-full of links, discussing “the prospect for a libertarianism that has a place for workers organizing freely, and a wildcat labor movement that frees itself from the smother

  3. Roderick T. Long

    Labyrus writes: “I can accept rationally that people have an ethical right to access the means to their own survival a lot more easily than I can accept that people have a natural right to monopolize what is potentially someone else’s means of survival.”

    The problem is that anything, even your own body, is potentially someone else’s means of survival. Suppose I’m starving, and the only way I can avoid death is (not to kill you but) to cut off, say, your arm and eat that. Would I be justified in doing that? I don’t think so. And that at least opens the door to a theory of property rights.

  4. Roderick T. Long

    Labortarian! Damn, why didn’t I think of that?

  5. Labyrus

    The problem is that anything, even your own body, is potentially someone else’s means of survival. Suppose I’m starving, and the only way I can avoid death is (not to kill you but) to cut off, say, your arm and eat that. Would I be justified in doing that? I don’t think so. And that at least opens the door to a theory of property rights.

    That could open the door to property rights, but I think it can also justify a more anachist theory of self-management.

    Giovanni Baldelli’s theory of “usrufruct” replaces property with an ownership system based on utility - if you own some means of production, and aren’t using it in any way, someone else has a right to use it. This only covers property in the Marxian sense of “land, labour capital”, personal affects would still be managed the same way. So the arm is still mine: a) because I use it b) because it’s my personal property c) because I have the same right to survival as you

    The parecon perspective is that people should have a say in economic decisions proportional to how much they are affected by them, so in this case, I’m affected seriously in the long term by the loss of an arm, (and presumably starving myself, otherwise you would just steal my food), so in that case, or pretty much any other decision involving my own body, I have the final say.

    The same can not be said of other people’s bodies (or the labour they do with them), or of land and natural resources, or of industrial capital. All of these could potentially be anyone’s livelehood, so social ownership seems to be a far more desirable system.

    It seems to me that most theories of property primarily justify it because it makes markets work, and I’m not really convinced that markets are a desirable allocation system at all.

    Another criticism of market allocation (this one also comes from Parecon) is the balooning of wealth differences it encourages. In any exchange, even a totally free one, if one party has market power and the other doesn’t, the party with market power can afford to “hold out” longer than the party without. This can be observed on a global scale with the declining terms of trade faced by most primary agricultural industries in the developing world, where prices have increased very slowly compared to the prices of developed goods.

  6. Roderick T. Long

    Well, it depends what counts as “use.” It seems to be a matter of degree. Right now I’m sitting and typing; so I’m using my hands, but not using my feet. Does that mean that right now I have more right to my hands than to my feet? Of course I’m using my feet in a broader sense, they’re instruments in my longer-term projects, but the same could be said of external property I’ve homesteaded but am not using just this minute.

    I think the boundaries of the self are more illuminatingly identified with the boundaries of one’s projects than with the boundaries of one’s physical body (indeed I would say that one’s body just is one of one’s ongoing projects); though certainly the boundaries are fuzzy, and some things are closer to the core and others to the periphery. Still, I have a hard time seeing how “utility” could give me the right to use the products of your labour yet stop short of giving me the right to use your body (which after all is also at this point mostly the product of your labour).

    As for markets causing vast differences in wealth, what’s the evidence that they do this in the absence of state intervention? If you look at existing wealth disparities today — either between individuals or between countries — how many of them got that way without the benefit of massive state violence on behalf of the winners?

  7. Roderick T. Long

    On the starvation example, okay, let’s alter it slightly.

    You’ve eaten recently. I haven’t eaten for many, many days. Neither of us has any food right now. (Stipulate that this whole situation is not the fault of either of us.) We know a supply of food will be dropped to us at a certain point in time. That time is close enough for you to survive till then without eating, but I will die if I don’t est till then. We have an excellent medical kit, so I propose to cut some chunks of meat off you and eat them, but I can sew you up well enough afterward that you’re almost certain to avoid any permanent damage — so your longterm survival abilities won’t be impaired.

    Yeah, I know it’s a far-fetched example, but still — it seems to me that if “utility” settled what rights people had (not just played a role in specifying their precise boundaries — that’s fine by me — but actually settled them), then under these described circumstances I would have the right to cut chunks off your body without your consent. But that seems to reduce you to the status of a slave in a way that strikes me as deeply inconsistent with any spirit of anarchism.

  8. Alex Gregory

    (I’ll hopefully reply in more depth after Christmas)

    “But that seems to reduce you to the status of a slave in a way that strikes me as deeply inconsistent with any spirit of anarchism.”

    Two points:

    1) It depends what you mean by anarchism, since although Radgeek is some kind of individualist anarchist, some of us are far more communitarian, and see things like ‘rights to not be interfered with’ as part of the problem. If you want a genuinely freely participatory and egalitarian society, it seems to me that you need to allow some people to lose out in order for others to gain (assuming that the gain is larger than the loss, obviously). This might be an extreme example of that, but I’m not convinced it destroys the idea that things ought to be used in ways that maximise utility. (thats more assertion than argument, but I just don’t think that extreme communitarian practises are necessarily opposed to anarchism as you suggest)

    2) Couldn’t Baldelli (or whomever else) argue that ‘utility’ /includes/ things like ‘personal autonomy’, so that whilst the fundamental point that we should treat property in terms of how it increases utility is true, the utility that we maximise includes some notion of individuals being granted certain freedoms? It seems to me that such an account would narrow the divide between libertarianism and usufruct - perhaps allowing for a more palpatable half-way point.

    Thanks, Alex

  9. Roderick T. Long

    I don’t really see the issue as one of individualist vs. communitarian approaches. Of course both of those terms have multiple meanings — but as I see it, individualism implies communitarianism (since individuals are social beings) and communitarianism implies individualism (since a genuine community must be based on voluntary rather than exploitative relationships).

    As for an egalitarian society, I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s precisely egalitarianism that necessarily implies “rights not to be interfered with.”

    On the second point: certainly utilitarianism becomes more palatable when things like autonomy are included in the good to be maximised. But treating autonomy only as an aim to be promoted (and not also as a limit to be respected) opens the door to trade-offs where it becomes permissible to sacrifice the autonomy of minorities for the sake of promoting the autonomy of majorities.

    I think autonomy viewed that way ceases to be autonomy at all; one can’t consistently grasp the value of autonomy while treating people as objects.

  10. Alex Gregory

    I call my (quasi-utilitarian) view communitarian since I believe that the health of the community depends on the idea that individuals should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. I don’t think thats exploitative (especially if it were not enforced, but rather recognised as part of a sensible moral code, and therefore abided by voluntarily) - but maybe you do.

    (I’ll read your interesting looking article soon - a bit short on time right now)

    And what kinds of trade-off of that kind would you find worrying?

  11. Roderick T. Long

    According to the rights theorist, I should give them bread, for it is the choice that minimises my chances of breaking someone�s rights.

    I can’t see how that follows. I don’t know of any rights theory that says it’s a duty to minimise all risk of violating rights. “Don’t voluntarily do X” doesn’t entail “Don’t do anything that increases, however slightly, the chance of doing X.”

    Thats obviously not an argument for utility- maximising morality, but rather a negative one against the idea that morality is merely a matter of failing to interfere with one-another.

    Well, sure, but who ever claimed that “morality is merely a matter of failing to interfere with one another”? Libertarianism isn’t a theory about which duties we have, it’s a theory about which duties may legitimately be enforced by violence.

  12. Alex Gregory

    Re: Your article

    It looks to me that rather than arguing that egalitarianism that necessarily implies rights not to be interfered with., you’ve in fact argued that IF inequality in authority is worse than inequality in ownership (contentious, though I’m not sure I’d deny it), and further, IF the choice is between egalitarianism of rights and egalitarianism of property, then we should choose inequality of property.

    But its a false dichotomy: I’m arguing that both egalitarianism of property and egalitarianism of rights are inadequate. The former, as I’m sure you’d agree, involves far too much intervention in people’s lives, but the latter implies something just as bad: that no intervention is better than some, even if the intervention benefits everyone.

    Think of it this way: Imagine that I live in a society where we have a strong belief in rights. I’m cooking dinner for my child and some of her friends. Now I have a choice: I can either cook a nice meal for them, or I can give them dry bread. If I give them the bread, then the chance of any getting ill is 0%. If I cook a nice meal on the other hand, then perhaps I’ll put something in that one of them is allergic to, or I’ll fail to cook the meat through properly (accidents do happen after all) - the chances of one getting ill rises to 1%.

    According to the rights theorist, I should give them bread, for it is the choice that minimises my chances of breaking someone’s rights. But this threatens to destroy all social bonds! By doing one-another favours, and being busy-bodies, we improve all of our lives. But if we maintain fundamental rights to certain things, then the rational course of action for us all is to avoid any form of contact, even potentially beneficial.

    Thats obviously not an argument for utility-maximising morality, but rather a negative one against the idea that morality is merely a matter of failing to interfere with one-another. Perhaps a nice half-way point can be found (and thats why I have an interest in a consequentialist valuing autonomy), but if it can’t, I’d rather we treated each other well most of the time, but occasionally required unfair sacrifice than that we didn’t have community at all.

  13. Sergio Méndez

    I have a question for Charles:

    What are the definitions of thick and thin libertarianism?

  14. Alex Gregory

    I don’t know of any rights theory that says it’s a duty to minimise all risk of violating rights. Don’t voluntarily do X doesn’t entail Don’t do anything that increases, however slightly, the chance of doing X.

    Maybe I’ll just ill-read on the topic, but how do you avoid that conclusion? Aren’t you either going to have to set some arbitrary limit on how much risk taking is acceptable (e.g. a 5% chance of risking breaking someone’s rights, never more), or claim that any risk taking is fine, which is absurd: If I push you into the road, and know that there’s a 1% chance of the cars breaking in time, surely I’m still culpable when you die?

    Libertarianism isn’t a theory about which duties we have, it’s a theory about which duties may legitimately be enforced by violence.

    Sorry, I hadn’t taken it this way. Of course, now I’m simply confused as to how you define violence as distinct from other coercive actions: It strikes me that the difference is in degree, not kind. Is insulting someone violence? Spitting? Pushing? Withholding food? Withholding friendship? Locking them in a room? Looking them out of a room? Convincing them its their moral duty?

    I’m also a little lost as to why you might think that some moral duties are enforcable by violence, and others aren’t. Would you maintain this no matter how small the breach of an enforcable right, and no matter how large the breach of an unenforcable right?

    Thanks for the interesting reply, Alex

  15. Eugene Plawiuk

    Thanks for the Libertarian Labour debate links I have continued it on my blog with my own interpretations of this from my libertarian communist perspective

  16. Rad Geek

    Sergio:

    What are the definitions of “thick” and “thin” libertarianism?

    To put it very roughly, thin libertarianism is the claim that libertarian politics should be narrowly concerned with getting everyone to adhere to the non-aggression principle; thick libertarianism is the claim that libertarian politics should be concerned with, or integrated into, a broader set of political or cultural commitments (for example, many paleos think that libertarianism needs to be integrated with a broader program of cultural conservatism and Christian traditionalism; Objectivists think that it needs to be integrated with a broad acceptance of Objectivist philosophy; I think that it needs to be integrated with radical feminism, antiauthoritarian leftism, etc.).

    Thin libertarians typically claim that the narrow focus keeps libertarianism from getting bogged down in unnecessary culture wars and leaves people to peacefully do their own thing; thick libertarians typically claim that some thicker set of commitments is, in some sense, necessary or at least important for a libertarian society to be created, or to be sustained, or to flourish. (There are actually a number of different dimensions in which you might have debates between thick and thin, and many different claims that might be made; fleshing it all out would be better for a post or a paper than for a comment box, though.)

    Hope this helps.

  17. Roderick T. Long

    Alex:

    Maybe I’ll just ill-read on the topic, but how do you avoid that conclusion [that we have a duty to minimise all risk of violating rights]? Aren’t you either going to have to set some arbitrary limit on how much risk taking is acceptable (e.g. a 5% chance of risking breaking someone’s rights, never more), or claim that any risk taking is fine, which is absurd: If I push you into the road, and know that there’s a 1% chance of the cars breaking in time, surely I’m still culpable when you die?

    I don’t see how this is a special problem for rights theory. It’s a quite general problem for any theory. Every time you drive a car you’re increasing the risk, very slightly, of running over somebody; every time you serve somebody hot soup you’re running a slight risk of scalding them. Now just about every moral theory will agree that (absent special circumstances) you shouldn’t run people over or scald them; but nevertheless, just about every moral theory will say it’s okay to drive a car or serve soup. So every moral theory has to recognise that the wrongness of doing X doesn’t entail the duty to minimise the risk of doing X.

    So just as a matter of common sense, just about everybody — utilitarian, rights theorist, or anything else — is going to agree that it’s okay to run small risks and not big ones (and that a given degree of risk becomes less acceptable the worse the outcome being risked). Is there any non-arbitrary way to quantify the precise cut-off between acceptable and unacceptable risk? No, of course there isn’t; here we enter the realm of individual judgment, social custom, etc. But again, this problem is a familiar and pervasive feature of the human condition; it’s not a special problem for rights theory.

    Sorry, I hadn’t taken it this way. Of course, now I’m simply confused as to how you define violence as distinct from other coercive actions: It strikes me that the difference is in degree, not kind. Is insulting someone violence? Spitting? Pushing? Withholding food? Withholding friendship? Locking them in a room? Looking them out of a room? Convincing them its their moral duty?

    I was using violence, coercion, and force roughly as synonyms, as libertarians tend to do (though our use of the word coercion conflicts with standard usage and so should probably be abandoned to avoid confusion — most people use coercion to involve getting people to do something, so if I just shoot somebody for the heck of it that wouldn’t be coercion in ordinary usage, but it would be in libertarian usage.). My basic point was that from the fact that an action is wrong, it doesn’t follow that you shouldn’t be allowed to do it. No libertarian approves of every action that s/he thinks people should be left free to do (just as defending freedom of speech doesn’t mean you agree with everything people use their freedom to say).

    Exactly what counts as violence/coercion and what doesn’t is of course an issue of major debate among libertarians — well, of course not just among libertarians. But there are some obvious paradigm cases: basically, the things police do to you if you violate the law — handcuffing, clubbing, arresting, incarcerating. The central idea is one of invading your personal boundaries, subordinating you to my will.

    As for withholding food and so forth, that raises the question of property rights, with which we started, which is essentially the question: which things, if any, are so related to you that subordinating them to my will counts as subordinating you to my will? (My own answer to that question is roughly Lockean.)

    I’m also a little lost as to why you might think that some moral duties are enforcable by violence, and others aren’t.

    For the reason I gave before: equality in authority. You’re my moral equal, so I don’t have authority over you, I don’t have the right to subordinate you forcibly to my will. If you invade my sphere of authority, I have the right to kick you out, and if you invade someone else’s sphere of authority I have the right to act as agent of their behalf to kick you out — but as long as you’re not engaging in aggression I can’t use force against you. So the only moral duty that can be enforced is the duty not to aggress, not to initiate force; enforcing any other duty would be treating people as slaves.

    I would also want to distinguish between violence and power, or perhaps better between violent and nonviolent forms of power. The libertarian view is that violent forms of power may legitimately be fought by violence, while nonviolent forms of power should be fought by other means. This doesn’t mean we think nonviolent forms of power are unimportant; as Charles and I have written elsewhere (though I should note that the fact that we co-authored the below does not mean he will agree with all that I’ve just said above):

    So the individualists’ libertarianism was not cashed out in ignoring non-governmental forms of oppression, but in their refusal to endorse government intervention as a long-term means of combating them. At first glance, contemporary liberals might find all this puzzling: So the 19th century libertarians recognized these problems, but they didn’t want to do anything effective about them? But effective political action only means government force if you buy into the authoritarian theory of politics …. If libertarian social and economic theory is correct, then non-libertarians typically overestimate the efficacy of governmental solutions, and underestimate the efficacy of non-governmental solutions. … While adverse power relations in the private sector — whether between labor and capital or between men and women — were seen as drawing much of their strength from the support given to them by corresponding power relations in the political sector, these thinkers did not conclude that it would be sufficient to direct all their energies against the sins of government in the hope that the private forms of oppression would fall as soon as political forms did. On the contrary, if private oppression drew strength from political oppression, the converse was true as well; 19th-century libertarians saw themselves as facing an interlocking system of private and public oppression, and thus recognized that political liberation could not be achieved except via a thoroughgoing transformation of society as a whole.

    Alex again:

    Would you maintain this no matter how small the breach of an enforcable right, and no matter how large the breach of an unenforcable right?

    I’m not sure what you mean by small and large here. And as the concept of rights is usually used in political contexts, unenforceable right is a contradiction in terms — rights just are, by definition, those claims that may be permissible enforced.

  18. Rad Geek

    Roderick:

    Yeah, I know it’s a far-fetched example, but still — it seems to me that if utility settled what rights people had (not just played a role in specifying their precise boundaries — that’s fine by me — but actually settled them), then under these described circumstances I would have the right to cut chunks off your body without your consent. But that seems to reduce you to the status of a slave in a way that strikes me as deeply inconsistent with any spirit of anarchism.

    Alex:

    It depends what you mean by anarchism, since although Radgeek is some kind of individualist anarchist, some of us are far more communitarian, and see things like rights to not be interfered with as part of the problem.

    Alex, I’m no expert, but I do suspect that slavery and violent cannibalism are inconsistent with the spirit of any version of anarchism or communitarianism worth defending.

  19. Alex Gregory

    Roderick,

    I don’t see how this is a special problem for rights theory. It’s a quite general problem for any theory

    I suspect its a problem for very few theories actually (virtue theories and consequentialists at least), but here I’ll just point out that the utiliarian simply does not have this problem. They can weigh up (in the car example) the high chance of it aiding many people in lots of small ways against the low chance of it accidentally killing someone. Comparing the two is precisely what a utility calculus is for.

    Its only when you introduce absolute prohibitions on certain actions that it starts to get murky.

    [Me] I’m also a little lost as to why you might think that some moral duties are enforcable by violence, and others aren’t.

    For the reason I gave before: equality in authority. You’re my moral equal, so I don’t have authority over you, I don’t have the right to subordinate you forcibly to my will.

    Sorry, perhaps I didn’t phrase that so well. Why is it that property rights are enforcable by violence, but anti-racism is not? The answer because that gives us equality in authority doesn’t really answer the question - why is it that equality in authority regarding material goods is desirable but equality in authority regarding racism is not? (i.e. why is it not permissible for any of us to use violence to combat racism (in any circumstance where that would be effective) but permissible for any of us to use violence to enforce property rights) What gives the special priority to property rights over other (presumably worse) impositions on people?

    [Me]Would you maintain this no matter how small the breach of an enforcable right, and no matter how large the breach of an unenforcable right?

    I’m not sure what you mean by small and large here. And as the concept of rights is usually used in political contexts, unenforceable right is a contradiction in terms — rights just are, by definition, those claims that may be permissible enforced.

    Again, sorry if I was unclear. I’ll take an example. Imagine Hitler owns (as in he has legitimate property rights over) everything in the world (don’t ask how that might happen!). However, rather than breaching any property rights or rights to life, he’s merely using his vast wealth to operate a huge propaganda campaign that induces everyone else to commit various evil deeds.

    Are we allowed to stop him by violence? Doing so would break your ‘no violence over property rights’ rule. If you maintain that some moral obligations are enforceable by violence, and others aren’t, are you really going to adopt the extreme conclusion that no matter how bad the breach of the unenforceable moral duty by the other party and no matter how small the breech of the enforceable moral duty required by us, its still wrong to intervene?

    Radgeek,

    Alex, I’m no expert, but I do suspect that slavery and violent cannibalism are inconsistent with the spirit of any version of anarchism or communitarianism worth defending.

    Isn’t that a bit of a straw man? What I said was that in the unlikely event that violent cannabalism leads to better consequences than no violent cannabalism, then its permitted. Likewise slavery. But both of these are incredibly counter-to-fact hypotheticals. I’m hardly suggesting that we should all run out now and start claiming slaves and eating one-another.

    Alex

  20. Alex Gregory

    Yes - thats a much better example! Thanks.

    “The problem for consequentialists to answer is how much stealing is permissible before it discourages the scientist from producing any more goods”

    Though hardly a theoretical rather than practical problem: that is, its a problem not for consequentialism as such, but rather in attempting to apply it well.

  21. Stefan

    Again, sorry if I was unclear. I’ll take an example. Imagine Hitler owns (as in he has legitimate property rights over) everything in the world (don’t ask how that might happen!). However, rather than breaching any property rights or rights to life, he’s merely using his vast wealth to operate a huge propaganda campaign that induces everyone else to commit various evil deeds.

    Are we allowed to stop him by violence?

    I’m sorry, you’re going to have to come up with a more coherent example than one that starts out with Suppose that Hitler owned the world…. Better, I will actually present a standard one for you (with my own tweaks):

    Suppose that your wife’s three-year-old son is dying of a painful disease and will soon perish. You work for an evil, racist, scum-of-the-earth, greedy scientist who has just manufactured the cure and produced about a hundred vials of it in his lab. It’s a trivial matter for you to walk into the lab and take a vial of the cure. The evil racist scientist will not sell at any price because he wants to do further research before releasing the cure onto the market (so as to maximize profit). He also hates your racial group, as well as you personally. Is it moral to steal just one of the hundred vials to save the life of your son?

    Since I did the work of recalling the example, I will allow Roderick to answer it!

    A related question is to iterate the above scenario. In the iterated case, the scientist produces a new result or product every week and every week you have the choice of stealing from him or not stealing from him. The problem for consequentialists to answer is how much stealing is permissible before it discourages the scientist from producing any more goods.

  22. Stefan

    Of course the mirror example would be: Is it moral to appropriate almost everything that a man owns (say, the home and equipment of a factory-owner) if by doing so you could extend your lifespan by a day.

— 2006 —

  1. Roderick T. Long

    Alex wrote:

    I’ll just point out that the utiliarian simply does not have this problem. They can weigh up (in the car example) the high chance of it aiding many people in lots of small ways against the low chance of it accidentally killing someone. Comparing the two is precisely what a utility calculus is for.

    I’m not sure what it means to say that the utilitarian “can” perform this calculation. What numbers does the utilitarian plug in for a) the probabilities of various benefits and harms, and b) the quantities of those benefits and harms? And what is the objective basis of those numbers? If the answer is “just use common-sense non-quantifiable judgment,” well, then the utilitarian is in the same boat as the non-utilitarian. If the answer is something else, what is it? (I’m reminded of an old cartoon where a magician mysteriously makes a pair of tongs dance about, but then the “secret trick” is revealed, namely, the magician has hypnotised the pair of tongs into thinking it’s a ballerina.)

    In any case, I think utilitarianism is self-defeating, because direct utilitarianism has bad consequences (and so is itself forbidden by utilitarian considerations) while indirect utilitarianism is conceptually unstable (for reasons I explain in my review of Leland Yeager’s book).

    why is it not permissible for any of us to use violence to combat racism (in any circumstance where that would be effective) but permissible for any of us to use violence to enforce property rights) What gives the special priority to property rights over other (presumably worse) impositions on people?

    Well, as I see it equality in authority implies that A can’t forcibly impose anything on B except in response to some forcible imposition of B’s. Since rights are legitimately enforceable claims, that implies that there are no rights other than the right not to have something forcibly imposed on you. That in turn implies that either a) there are no property rights, or b) property rights are an instance of the right to be free of forcible impositions. Option (a) means that nobody has a right to use any external material objects ever, which I take to be absurd; therefore (b).

    Imagine Hitler owns (as in he has legitimate property rights over) everything in the world (don’t ask how that might happen!).

    I’m afraid I do have to ask, because I don’t see how, even in principle, someone could acquire legitimate ownership over everything in the world consistently with any plausible libertarian theory of property acquisition.

    Suppose that your wife’s three-year-old son is dying of a painful disease and will soon perish. You work for an evil, racist, scum-of-the-earth, greedy scientist who has just manufactured the cure and produced about a hundred vials of it in his lab. It’s a trivial matter for you to walk into the lab and take a vial of the cure. The evil racist scientist will not sell at any price because he wants to do further research before releasing the cure onto the market (so as to maximize profit). He also hates your racial group, as well as you personally. Is it moral to steal just one of the hundred vials to save the life of your son?

    I don’t see how the racism really does much work in this example; it’s really a question of whether, and to what extent, rights get weakened in emergencies. My own view (based on Aristotelean unity-of-virtue considerations, where the contents of the virtues of prudence, benevolence, and justice stand in reciprocal determination) is that in an emergency situation like the one described it is morally permissible for you to steal the drug, but doing so places you under an enforceable obligation to compensate the scientist. Some rights theorists would be stricter and others would be looser than I am.

    But the real underlying issue here is whether the permissibility of deviations in emergency cases can be used to justify deviations in ordinary cases. Here I think the non-utilitarian has the advantage over the utilitarian, since the non-utilitarian has both consequentialist and non-consequentialist considerations to balance, and so can afford to answer no, while the utilitarian is committed by the internal logic of utilitarianism to saying, inconsistently, both no and yesno because direct utilitarianism is self-defeating, yes because indirect utilitarianism itself-defeating. (Again see the Yeager review I linked to above.)

  2. Stefan

    don’t see how the racism really does much work in this example

    Yeah I know I thought it up on the spur of the moment - the racism is there just to make him as least deserving of respect as possible.

    My own view (based on Aristotelean unity-of-virtue considerations, where the contents of the virtues of prudence, benevolence, and justice stand in reciprocal determination) is that in an emergency situation like the one described it is morally permissible for you to steal the drug, but doing so places you under an enforceable obligation to compensate the scientist. Some rights theorists would be stricter and others would be looser than I am.

    I guess I’ll have to read more about deontology in particular - there seems to be some sort of expectation I’ve found that non-consequentialist libertarians aren’t allowed to make any trade-offs between rights and non-rights ever.

  3. Alex Gregory

    I’m not sure what it means to say that the utilitarian can perform this calculation. What numbers does the utilitarian plug in ….

    Thats a very different criticism. I’m saying that if utilitarianism were true, then driving cars is ok. However if some kinds of rights theory were true, I find it hard to see how driving a car, could be permissible.

    And I take that as a reductio, before we even being to question whether a rights system can get off the ground in other respects.

    I agree that there’s a problem of interpersonal comparisons here for utilitarianism, but its not the argument that we were having.

    In any case, I think utilitarianism is self-defeating, because direct utilitarianism has bad consequences (and so is itself forbidden by utilitarian considerations) while indirect utilitarianism is conceptually unstable

    I thought this line of thought had long been dead. Direct utilitarianism provides the criterion of rightness for acts, but due to human weakness we should each adopt indirect utilitarianism from a personal standpoint.

    An analogy: When I play tennis, if I have in my head the desire to win, I undoubtedly will begin to play badly since I’ll get too tense. However, if I force myself to consider something else (say, daydream about philosophy), then I play better. It doesn’t follow that I’ve misunderstood the criteria for winning at tennis: the correct standard for doing well at a tennis game is a very different question from what mental state I should adopt, although the former partially determines the latter.

    Similarly, the correct standard for being moral is a very question from which mental state I should adopt, although the former partially determines the latter.

    I’m a little bit lost on your next paragraph, although nobody has a right to use any external material objects ever, which I take to be absurd struck me as odd: Why can’t there be arbitrary legal rights over external objects, but also a recognition that this is simply one way of doing things that achieves good consequentialist results?

    I don’t see how, even in principle, someone could acquire legitimate ownership over everything in the world

    Well, presumably we could give all our possessions away as gifts, in this somewhat contrived example, but lets leave it since Stefans example was better.

    But the real underlying issue here is whether the permissibility of deviations in emergency cases can be used to justify deviations in ordinary cases

    Ok, imagine that torture were an effective method of getting information out of terrorists. Imagine further that you know that if torture were used in the correct fashion, the US government could maximise utility by legalising torture.

    It seems to me to be perfectly legitimate for the utilitarian to say but we also know that the government is weak, and is unlikely to use torture in the correct fashion - it is therefore better that we impose a uniform ban on torture than that we allow it, even though we know it should be used in some cases.

    Similarly, the utilitarian response to deviance in standard cases by saying You may be correct that it seems as though we should deviate in this case: But I know that many people have previously said that and gone on to make many mistakes which actually ended up failing to maximise utility - we should therefore stick to the ban.

    One final analogy to reiterate my point that its not contradictory to offer one standard of rightness and another of the attitude you should adopt: Imagine that philosophers all come to agree that an artwork is good if and only if it accurately depicts beauty (I’m sure there are numerous problems with such a definition!). Thats our standard of goodness of an artwork. But it doesn’t follow that an artist should try to paint something beautiful. Perhaps artists best produce beautiful things when they try to commit their emotions to the canvas. There’s no instability here: when asked Should you, or should you not, change this picture to make it more beautiful, the artist can quite coherantly reply it would be better if it were more beatiful, yes, but in trying to do so I would only make it worse: I would be better to make it better reflect my inner pain, and that will endow it with beauty.

    (there are obviously also criticisms I could offer of the aristotelian view, but this discussion is still expanding as it is)

    Alex

  4. Roderick T. Long

    Stefan writes:

    I guess I’ll have to read more about deontology in particular - there seems to be some sort of expectation I’ve found that non-consequentialist libertarians aren’t allowed to make any trade-offs between rights and non-rights ever.

    Actually there are lots of non-consequentialist libertarians who allow for trade-offs between rights and non-rights (famously Robert Nozick for one). But the view I’m defending is somewhat different; it’s not that rights sometimes get trumped, it’s that consequentialist considerations enter into determining the content of rights in the first place.

    Alex writes:

    Thats a very different criticism. I’m saying that if utilitarianism were true, then driving cars is ok.

    But if the case for that claim depends, as it seems to, on the possibility of making calculations that are in fact impossible, in principle, to make, then it’s not a different criticism, it’s a continuation of the same criticism.

    However if some kinds of rights theory were true, I find it hard to see how driving a car, could be permissible. And I take that as a reductio

    My point is that the premise It is impermissible to choose X does not entail the premise It is impermissible to choose an action that slightly increases the probability of X. The inference simply isn’t valid. The only way to make it valid would be to add an auxiliary premise — but which auxiliary premise, and why on earth should we believe that premise?

    I thought this line of thought had long been dead. Direct utilitarianism provides the criterion of rightness for acts, but due to human weakness we should each adopt indirect utilitarianism from a personal standpoint. An analogy: When I play tennis, if I have in my head the desire to win, I undoubtedly will begin to play badly since I’ll get too tense. However, if I force myself to consider something else (say, daydream about philosophy), then I play better. It doesn’t follow that I’ve misundestood the criteria for winning at tennis: the correct standard for doing well at a tennis game is a very different question from what mental state I should adopt, although the former partially determines the latter. Similarly, the correct standard for being moral is a very question from which mental state I should adopt, although the former partially determines the latter.

    Yes, that’s the familiar utilitarian position, but I don’t see how it avoids the problem I described. Here’s an excerpt from the piece I linked to above:

    Whatever I choose, I choose either as a consumer’s good (a first-order good) or as a producer’s good (a higher-order good). Utilitarianism of any sort regards morality as a producer’s good, a means of producing happiness; but indirect utilitarianism maintains, in effect, that the most effective way to promote happiness is to treat morality as if it were a consumer’s good, even though it isn’t one. But is it really possible to adopt the attitude that indirect utilitarianism recommends? When I choose morality as if it were a consumer’s good, either it really becomes a consumer’s good for me, or else it remains a producer’s good and I am only pretending. There is no third possibility.

    Suppose it does become a consumer’s good for me. In that case, I am no longer a consistent utilitarian, since in my actions I reveal a preference for morality as an end in itself. Yeager recommends treating a principle as inherently binding at the everyday level while recognizing its contingency on utilitarian outcomes at the reflective level (pp. 294–95); but doesn’t this just amount to advising us to form inconsistent preferences? And if the preferences on which I ordinarily act do treat morality as a consumer’s good, in what sense can it be said that I really regard it as a producer’s good? On the other hand, suppose that morality remains a producer’s good for me. Following Mises, we may say that every action embodies a means-end scheme; in that case, even when I choose to act morally, my choice commits me to rejecting morality in counterfactual situations — cooked-up cases — where immorality would be a more effective means to the end, and this commitment is a blot on my character now. (Hence the Kantian insistence on the importance of maxims rather than actions.)

    It has often been claimed that indirect utilitarianism is unstable, and must collapse either into direct utilitarianism on the one hand or into rules fetishism on the other. This can be interpreted as a psychological claim about the likely results of trying to maintain a utilitarian attitude, in which case its truth or falsity is an empirical matter. By transposing the familiar stability objection into a praxeological key, however, what I’ve been trying to show is that indirect utilitarianism is not just causally but conceptually unstable. If I treat morality as a consumer’s good, I must reject utilitarianism on pain of inconsistency; if I treat morality as a producer’s good, I thereby exhibit a moral character or disposition that utilitarian considerations themselves condemn. But I must treat morality in one way or the other; hence utilitarianism is praxeologically self-defeating. The praxeologist cannot be a direct utilitarian, since praxeological reasoning itself shows us that the utilitarian’s goal depends on social cooperation, which in turn requires the kind of stable and consistent commitment to principles that a direct utilitarian cannot have. Nor can the praxeologist be an indirect utilitarian, since praxeological considerations force a choice between treating morality as a producer’s good (in which case we’re back with direct utilitarianism) and treating it as a consumer’s good (in which case utilitarianism prescribes its own rejection). We may have utilitarian reasons for adopting moral commitments, but once we have adopted them, we can no longer regard them as resting on purely utilitarian foundations — because so regarding them would alter their status as commitments.

    Alex again:

    I’m a little bit lost on your next paragraph, although nobody has a right to use any external material objects ever, which I take to be absurd struck me as odd: Why can’t there be arbitrary legal rights over external objects, but also a recognition that this is simply one way of doing things that achieves good consequentialist results?

    That point wasn’t part of the argument against consequentialism, it was my answer to Alex’s question why, once one adopts the (non-consequentialist) principle of equality in authority, one has to take a certain position about property rights. So at that point in the dialectic the consequentialist option isn’t in play.

  5. Roderick T. Long

    Oh, one more note about indirect utilitarianism. Alex notes:

    One final analogy to reiterate my point that its not contradictory to offer one standard of rightness and another of the attitude you should adopt: Imagine that philosophers all come to agree that an artwork is good if and only if it accurately depicts beauty (I’m sure there are numerous problems with such a definition!). Thats our standard of goodness of an artwork. But it doesn’t follow that an artist should try to paint something beautiful. Perhaps artists best produce beautiful things when they try to commit their emotions to the canvas. There’s no instability here: when asked Should you, or should you not, change this picture to make it more beautiful, the artist can quite coherantly reply it would be better if it were more beatiful, yes, but in trying to do so I would only make it worse: I would be better to make it better reflect my inner pain, and that will endow it with beauty.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the above, and with the broader point that sometimes the best way to achieve X is to aim not at X but at Y (and not just at Y as a means to X, but at Y either for its own sake or as a means to some Z). But I don’t think this is going to help the utilitarian; here’s why. Suppose I want to achieve X. I learn that I can best do this by getting myself to care about Y in a non-X-related way. Okay, fine. Suppose I do (and am not just pretending). Then I now regard Y as having value apart from X. I can still regard X as part of the reason for Y’s value, but I also have now come to regard X as having an additional, non-X-based dimension of value. That’s fine and no problem — except that insofar as I have succeeded in doing this, I can no longer consistently sign on to any theory that claims that X is the sole basis of value. That’s what I see as the problem for utilitarianism.

    In addition to my Yeager review on this, see also my friendship article.

  6. Alex Gregory

    Thanks for the reply.

    My point is that the premise It is impermissible to choose X does not entail the premise It is impermissible to choose an action that slightly increases the probability of X. The inference simply isn’t valid. The only way to make it valid would be to add an auxiliary premise — but which auxiliary premise, and why on earth should we believe that premise?

    This may not be the best way of phrasing this, but I’ll try it anyway. Take the following argument:

    1. It is wrong to do X
    2. Mystery premise
    3. It is wrong to act so as to make the chance of X happening 99%

    The conclusion (3) does seem to follow from (1) (If I point a gun at you and pull the trigger, the fact that I know this gun occasionally jams, or that I may miss, hardly excuses me). As you say, the content of premise (2) is difficult to ascertain, but there is presumably some content.

    Now, argument #2:

    1. It is wrong to do X
    2. Mystery premise
    3. It is wrong to act so that the chance of X happening is 5%

    I guess my challenge is the following: What (non ad-hoc) content for premise (2) would make the former argument valid but the latter not?

    When I choose morality as if it were a consumer’s good, either it really becomes a consumer’s good for me, or else it remains a producer’s good and I am only pretending.

    The short answer, I think, is, why can’t I just pretend?.

    The longer answer..

    It seems to me (correct me if I’m wrong) that your objection is that any utilitarian, in practice, has to be a hypocrite, in quite a strong sense. That is, they have to hold two concepts of morality at the same time. In the philosophy classroom, they have to sit there and say that acts are moral if and only if they maximise utility. But in the real world, this same utilitarian has to internalise a completely different standard of their actions. In your terms, I’m taking the second horn of your indirect utilitarian dillema and treating utility as a consumers good.

    But, isn’t the utilitarian response going to be: Yes, I know I’m exhibiting signs of irrationality here, and yes, I’m a hypocrite. But I’d rather have contradictory thoughts in my head than act wrongly. Therefore I’ll be inconsistent, but by doing so I can trick myself into acting in a moral manner.

    Similarly, my artist may well be aware that he’s holding false beliefs (that good art is art that expresses his emotions), but simply rejoin: Who cares! It makes my art good.

    And I’ll try one more time on the violence thing. Presumably

  7. Roderick T. Long

    Alex writes:

    I guess my challenge is the following: What (non ad-hoc) content for premise (2) would make the former argument valid but the latter not?

    I would break the “mystery premise” down into a principle and a judgment. (But you’re not going to like them.)

    Principle: whatever it is wrong to do, it is wrong to run an unreasonably high risk of causing.

    Judgment: in this particular context, ____ constitutes an unreasonably high risk of causing X.

    Why this principle, as opposed to, say, a 0% principle or a 100% principle? Because of unity-of-virtue considerations; a 0% principle can’t enter into mutual determination of content with prudence and benevolence, while a 100% principle ignores the generally probabilistic nature of action.

    Now the application of this principle obviously calls for common-sense judgment rather than a numerical algorithm. If that’s a problem, then all of life is a problem, because the reliance on judgment is ineliminable.

    It seems to me (correct me if I’m wrong) that your objection is that any utilitarian, in practice, has to be a hypocrite, in quite a strong sense. That is, they have to hold two concepts of morality at the same time. In the philosophy classroom, they have to sit there and say that acts are moral if and only if they maximise utility. But in the ‘real world’, this same utilitarian has to internalise a completely different standard of their actions. In your terms, I’m taking the second horn of your indirect utilitarian dillema and treating utility as a consumers good. But, isn’t the utilitarian response going to be: Yes, I know I’m exhibiting signs of irrationality here, and yes, I’m a hypocrite. But I’d rather have contradictory thoughts in my head than act wrongly. Therefore I’ll be inconsistent, but by doing so I can trick myself into acting in a moral manner.

    My argument wasn’t that the utilitarian will consciously believe contradictories at the same time — because I don’t think it’s possible to consciously believe contradictories at the same time. (And this isn’t a psychological claim; conceptually I don’t think anything counts as consciously believing contradictories at the same time — for reasons I explain here.) My argument was just the opposite: that the utilitarian won’t, can’t, consciously believe both things (though he may mistakenly take himself to believe them). Either the utilitarian’s real beliefs (the ones expressed to action — because being disposed to act on a belief is part of what we mean by believing it) treat morality as having solely instrumental value (in which case his actions will have bad results and be condemned by utilitarian standards themselves) or else his real beliefs (again, the ones expressed in action) will not treat morality as having solely instrumental value (in which case he’s not a utilitarian). As I see it, there’s just no such thing as believing (really believing) one thing yet doing another.

    And I’ll try one more time on the violence thing. Presumably

    Did something get cut off here?

  8. Discussed at atopian.org

    atopian.org:

    Linkage

    There have been quite a few good discussions around the web over the last week or so. Not sure whether the christmas period has let people mull together some previous thoughts, or whether just by chance lots of nice discussion has come at once. Anyway:

  9. Alex Gregory

    Hi again,

    I was under the impression that we were originally discussing deontological theories of ethics, which, in my experience, usually do not allow judgement to be a determining factor in rightness or wrongness. Regardless, I’m happy to admit that a virtue-theorist (or, more accurately, any theory with a component of judgement) can account for my above argument. (as I think I said here)

    As I said above, I have (familiar) criticisms of the use of some vague idea of ‘judgement’ in moral theorising (isn’t that judgement going to be itself constituted by quantifiable psychological processes? and further, what counts as a ‘correct’ judgement? What are we judging? - not moral facts presumably) - but this probably isn’t the place to expand this discussion further than its already gone.

    Secondly, I’m unfortunately unfamiliar with most of what you refer to in your article (Mises, Frege, Wittgenstein, Praxeology and more), so I’ll try and read it sometime next week, but I’ve no idea how much of what I’ll have to say will be particuarly constructive.

    The worry that immediately springs to mind is that empirically speaking, there are people who believe in (direct) utilitarianism, and act so as to be an indirect utilitarian. How are you going to explain this (fairly plausible) fact away? However, I assume you give an answer to that question (or an analogous one) in your article, so I suspect this may be where the discussion ends.

    And no - I was going to try and rephrase it, decided I was struggling to, and then meant to delete that and give it some more thought. My bad for forgetting to delete it, sorry.

    Thanks for the most interesting discussion,
    Alex

  10. Roderick T. Long

    Alex saith:

    I was under the impression that we were originally discussing deontological theories of ethics, which, in my experience, usually do not allow judgement to be a determining factor in rightness or wrongness. Regardless, I’m happy to admit that a virtue-theorist (or, more accurately, any theory with a component of judgement) can account for my above argument.

    I think the distinction between deontology and virtue ethics is fuzzier than it’s sometimes taken to be. Virtue ethicists tend to lay more stress on judgment while deontologists tend to lay more stress on rules, but when pressed virtue ethicists have traditionally allowed for some general rules (particularly in the area of justice — Smith compares justice to grammar and benevolence to style) while deontologists (even Kant! and so a fortiori less extreme deontologists) have traditionally admitted a role for judgment. (The official difference between deontology and virtue ethics is sometimes supposed to be that for deontologists the rightness of an action is a formal feature of the action while for virtue ethicists the rightness of an action is a matter of its being expressive of a state of character. But by that criterion Kant, everyone’s paradigmatic deontologist, sounds like a virtue ethicist, since he bases the rightness of an action on its being expressive of respect for personhood. Maybe Kantianism is virtue ethics with only one virtue — a deformed virtue ethics [by analogy with deformed workers’ state].)

    isn’t that judgement going to be itself constituted by quantifiable psychological processes?

    It depends what constituted by means, but if it means something stronger than enabled by or dependent on then I would say no; see, for example, my argument here.

    and further, what counts as a correct judgement? What are we judging? — not moral facts presumably

    I would say, sure, we are judging moral facts; but I think of moral facts as constructs out of the commitments of agency, and so neither merely subjective on the one hand nor out there like physical/chemical facts on the other.

    The worry that immediately springs to mind is that empirically speaking, there are people who believe in (direct) utilitarianism, and act so as to be an indirect utilitarian. How are you going to explain this (fairly plausible) fact away?

    As a Wittgensteinian I think what we mean by our words and thoughts depends crucially on how we actually apply them. (As a Socratic I think it also depends in part on how we would apply them on reflection, and as a Kripkean I think it also depends in part on facts unknown to us, but all that’s a longer story.) So if someone says the best thing to do is X, but then they never do X, then on a Wittgensteinian/Socratic analysis they don’t really mean that X is best. They may think they mean it, and their thinking so can be expressed in their behaviour (their verbal behaviour in philosophy class, say), but contemplating a sentence with a feeling of conviction doesn’t count as believing it. (After all, there could be a drug that gave me a feeling of conviction when I contemplate the sentence frumble mooligizes treppantly, but that wouldn’t count as my believing the sentence, because there’s nothing there to believe.)

— 2008 —

  1. Black Bloke

    Why are the letters so messed up in here?

  2. Rad Geek

    Black Bloke,

    If you’re worried about what I think you were worried about, it’s because of an imperfect transition to UTF-8 character encoding when I upgraded from one version of my blog software to another which caused certain special characters to get converted into something that web browsers don’t understand.

    I think I’ve now fixed all the problems manually, but let me know if there’s anything left messed up.

  3. Black Bloke

    That was part of the problem, but then I realized later that day in surfing that almost every website I went to had letters screwed up in the same way. It turns out it was just an error in Safari.

    Thanks for the reply though :-)

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