Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Moral Machines

Interesting hypothetical that will eventually become relevant.  Thoughts?

Moral Machines--From Whose Point of View

A friend sent me a link to a New Yorker piece--link below--that pointed out that the self-driving cars that Google is developing will sometimes have to make "moral" decisions. The author, Gary Marcus, provides this example: "Your car is speeding along a bridge at fifty miles per hour when an errant school bus carrying forty innocent children crosses its path." Should you swerve, with the expectation that your car will fly off the bridge and you will die, or simply slam on the brakes with the expectation that you will hit the bus fast enough to kill many children (you being protected by your airbag)?

Marcus points out that the computers that control cars will have to make such judgment calls in a split second. My concern is: how should they do it? In particular, whose perspective should they take on?

One perspective is that of you, the driver. It seems to me that you are not required to turn your car if you expect to die as a result. It's not your fault that the bus cut in front of you, and I'll suppose that going 50 mph is within the speed limit. It would be heroic of you to sacrifice yourself for the children, but it's beyond the call of duty. I will suppose that you would not do it.

The other perspective is that of a neutral party (of course there's also the perspective of the children and their loved ones, but it's hard to see why the computer would take their perspective). I think it would be permissible, and that there is positive moral reason, for someone who had the power to flip a switch and cause your car to swerve off to the side in order to save some number of children. You and your car constitute an innocent threat to the children, but I think innocent threats can be killed to save a greater number of innocent victims. I will suppose that a neutral party would divert your car, thereby killing you, to save them.

Should your car take your perspective, as though it is your agent? Or should it take the neutral perspective, as we would want state installed machines to be programmed if they could intervene in such situations? I can see reasons on both sides, but I'd love to hear what thoughts those of you who read this post have.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hayek and the concept of law

I've been away for a while but I would like to get discussions rolling again. I plan on blogging a few thoughts regarding Hayek's theory of law and his (brief) comments on legal positivism. It seems to me that he was either deeply confused about contemporary legal positivism or simply inexcusably out-dated in his reference to a long-since-altered theory of legal positivism.  We'll see where this leads.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Question regarding the right to freedom of contract

Question for fellow-bloggers and readers generally (if there are any): does the right to freedom of contract depend on the existence of a "free market" social context?  In other words, if we are in a social context that would be accurately characterized as an "unfree market" (in the moral sense, i.e., depending upon a moral ideal of a "free market"), would individuals possess the right to freedom of contract, or is that right somehow circumscribed and limited in specific ways (the particular limitation determined by the nature of the normative "facts" on the ground)?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


I have made extensive edits and additions to my post below on Consent Theories of political legitimacy/obligation.  Take a look.  Comments and criticisms are hoped for.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Quote of the Day

This passage does a great job of expressing what I believe is of central importance in understanding not only the what is morally important in the idea of equality, but also what is fundamentally important in the idea of freedom:

The real point of the maxim that all men are equal may be simply that all men equally have a point of view of their own, a unique angle from which they view the world.  They are all equally centers of experience, foci of subjectivity.  This implies that they are all capable of being viewed by others, imaginatively from their own point of view.  They ‘have shoes’ into which we can always try to put ourselves; this is not true of mere things.  Joel Feinberg, Social Philosophy 93-94 (1973).

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Deliberative vs. Participatory citizens

This is an interesting passage from Jason Brennan’s The Ethics of Voting:

Let’s describe two kinds of democratic citizens.

1.  Deliberative citizens have frequent crosscutting political discussion.  That is, they frequently consider and respond to contrary views.  They are careful in forming their own political preferences.  They are able to articulate good reasons on behalf of contrary views.  They have high levels of political knowledge.

2.  Participatory citizens engage heavily with politics.  They run for office, run campaigns, vote, give money to campaigns, attend town hall meetings, engage in protests, write letters to the editor, etc.
Diana Mutz’s empirical work shows that deliberation and participation do not come together.  Deliberative citizens do not participate much, and participatory citizens do not deliberate much.  The people who are most active in politics tend to be (in my words, not Mutz’s) cartoon ideologues.  The people who are most careful in formulating their own political views and who spend the most time consulting contrary views tend not to participate in politics.

Being exposed to contrary points of views tends to lessen one’s enthusiasm for one’s own political views.  Deliberation with others who hold contrary views tends to make one ambivalent and apathetic about politics.  True believers make better activists than cautious, self-skeptical thinkers.  (Imagine a street evangelist saying, “Hear ye!  My religion might be the one truth path, but, you know, there are good grounds for doubt!”)  Crosscutting political exposure decreases the likelihood that a person will vote, reduces the number of political activities a person engages in, and makes people take longer to decide how to vote.

 In contrast, active, participatory citizens tend not to engage in much deliberation and tend not to have much crosscutting political discussion. Instead, they seek out and interact only with others with whom they already agree. When asked why other people hold contrary points of view, participatory citizens tend to respond that others must be stupid or corrupt. Participatory citizens are often unable to give charitable explanations of why people might hold contrary views. (This is worrisome, because people who tend to demonize all contrary views tend to be unjustified in their own views).

Quote of the Day

From Loren Lomasky, Libertarianism as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered, 15 Social Philosophy & Policy 350, 369-70 (1998):

That brings us to the question of that which is beyond the pale of toleration by cooperative libertarians. I do not have any neat schematism for the display of these breaches. Rather, I can offer nothing more exact than this rule of thumb: All those measures that deliberately or foreseeably trample on the rights-respecting activity of some to advance the interests or designs of others merit all the disdain and noncooperation libertarians can muster. If slavery were still around and enjoyed the support of millions of one's compatriots, it would be the paradigm of an institution with which no accommodation is possible. But it is not exactly bold and provocative theorizing to send one's moral principles into battle against Simon Legree. Since slavery is blessedly dormant, the War on Drugs is perhaps the best example of a contemporary practice enjoying wide popularity with which libertarians must conscientiously refuse any degree of accommodation. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have been jailed for illicit chemical consumption; civil rights have been obliterated by glinty-eyed G-Men; vast swatches of our cities have been rendered unlivable by fallout from the battles. To be sure, drug crusaders have offered rationales for these policies, rationales that invoke timehonored moral concepts. Some drug warriors profess that by threatening to lock up drug users and then carrying out those threats, they are acting for the sake of the users' good. It is a wondrous if not entirely benign feature of human lips that they can be employed to say virtually anything. This is one of those cases where discernment is needed to distinguish between the plausible and the pathetic. The level of discernment which is needed to see through the various drug czars' rhetoric does not, I confess, seem to me to be great. Whether great or small, though, I do not see that a conscientious libertarian can have any truck with this crusade. One may not relieve oneself of the burden of one's unpleasant neighbor by informing the authorities where he keeps his stash, and one may not become one of those authorities. Period

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Quote of the Day

I highly recommend Loren Lomasky’s Libertarianism as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered, 15 Social Philosophy & Policy 350 (1998).  This article deals clearly with many issues I have been thinking about, specifically the relation between libertarianism and democracy.  Indeed, the fundamental issue Lomasky sets out to resolve is the relation between two facts (if one is a libertarian): (1) Libertarianism is the correct political morality, (2) the vast majority of our fellow citizens disagree with the status of libertarianism.  Here is an excerpt:

“For those who believe that libertarian precepts can be read off the book of nature by all those who enjoy the moral equivalent of something like a tenth-grade reading level, it is virtually unavoidable that those who fail to subscribe to libertarianism will be regarded as dunces or as wicked. The alternative libertarianism, what I shall refer to as cooperative libertarianism, is more generous. It is willing to concede that the nonlibertarians among whom one lives are mostly well-meaning, honorable people with whom one may cooperate without thereby dishonoring oneself. (Of course, just as the fact that one is paranoid does not mean that one has no real enemies, so too are there nonlibertarians—and libertarians!—who genuinely are evil and stupid.) Nonlibertarians are, to be sure, importantly mistaken concerning a momentous matter, but that mistake discredits neither their intellect nor their character. Possession of moderate goodwill and moderate intelligence do not immunize people from statist persuasions. Indeed, neither does an abundance of goodwill and intelligence. That is because the moral terrain that must be traversed in order to arrive at the libertarian destination is steep, rocky, and dotted with mirages. Nongeneralizable items within one's personal experience heavily influence the likelihood that one will achieve that happy consummation. Rawls refers to these epistemic obstacles as the "burdens of judgment.”  Let me offer some examples that specifically relate to acceptance of (L). …” [at 360].

Vallier's Libertarian Rehabilitation of Hobbes

Check out Kevin Vallier's interesting post on Hobbes, public reason, and libertarianism.  From the post:

However, the problem with traditional libertarians is that they confine the range of reasonable disagreement to disputes about how to make libertarian property rights more determinate and resolve disputes among legitimate property holders. In other words, they think the range of disagreement is rather small and so arbiters have limited authority.

But let’s confront traditional libertarians with an undeniable truth: reasonable people disagree about way more political and moral matters than the scope of libertarian property rights. In fact, the large majority of reasonable people find libertarian conceptions of property rights deeply objectionable. And many of those reasonable disagreements remain after they become familiar with libertarian arguments.

So let me pose a question to traditional libertarians (related to one of my previous posts): you want to set up a libertarian society because you think it is required by justice and to serve the common good. But your free and equal fellows reasonably reject your conception of property rights. As a result, the coercion you are prepared to use to defend your property against their encroachments will be coercion that they have strong reason to reject.

Libertarians avoid the problem of private judgment by implicitly assuming that libertarian property rights are the default no-coercion point. A society without coercion is a society with property rights. But that’s false. Property rights are coercive. That does not mean that property rights cannot be justified. It just means that the coercion involved in defending property rights must be justified to all persons.


Traditional libertarian, in at least one sense, Hobbes was less authoritarian than you.

Take a look at the whole post. Worth the read. I had a follow up comment in the Comments section:

Great post, Kevin, although I prefer more of a Lockean framework (very similar to Hobbes on the need for public authority due to differing interpretations of right reason, the umpire function, etc.).

Doesnt Hobbes allow for an existing Sovereign to conquer others, and thus, in the end, all that really matters is the power/ability to enforce norms?

How much of this relies on a prescriptivist view of "moral talk"? Is the Gausian view undermined if moral practice and moral claims are not authoritarian in the face of disagreement?

Gaus seems to pooh pooh the particularity problem (see OPR, p. 471, n.39), but it seems to me that he simply pushes it back a level to the level of "social morality." Hobbes and contractualism also seem unable to adequately answer Simmons: who ought to be subject to the contractarian requirements in the first place? What makes up a legitimate polity? How do we determine the boundaries? I'm not pursuaded by the "well, we'll just rely on history to answer that one" argument.

Kevin's response:

I think that constructivists about moral and political authority (which includes most contractarians) will answer that moral authority requires shared norms, practices, ideas, etc. The reason that Rawls privileges nations, in my view, is that they have a much higher degree of shared social practices and ideas and so can form a moral and political order with a thick enough set of norms to warrant other nations treating them as a unit. I think Jerry has a similar view, though he explicitly extends public justification to trade networks, as I remember from OPR. You might also read the appendix in Justificatory Liberalism on this subject.         

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Kevin Vallier has a good post over at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism on contractualism.  I highly recommend it.  One point I would like to highlight. He does a good job of illustrating what I think most people are confused about in assessing contemporary contractualism: it's not about agreement or consent, but justification.

II. Justification, Not Consent
Most readers will think that contractualism rests on the idea of a contract (true) that in turn depends on a conception of consent (false). The traditional social contract views (Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) did rely on consent and agreement. But the contractualist tradition in political theory has evolved away from an ideal of actual agreement and hypothetical agreement. That is, the social contract does not consist in rules we have actually agreed to (which everyone and their mom has pointed out for three hundred years) or rules we would only hypothetically agree to (which everyone and their mom has pointed out can’t really generate obligations). Sam Freeman puts it this way: the “role of unanimous collective agreement” is in showing “what we have reasons to do in our social and political relations.” Agreement itself is not the binding act. Instead, agreement is reason-revealing.

Thus, the core normative idea of social contract theory (contractualism) is not consent or agreement but justification. As Rawls said of his original position, its aim is to settle “the question of justification … by working out a problem of deliberation.” (TJ, 16) Or as Gaus has put it, “Contractualism is … best understood as a method for publicly justifying the public moral code of a society. Seen in this light, the idea of ‘consent’ – or indeed ‘agreement’ – is only heuristic.” (Value and Justification, 328)

The social contract in contemporary political philosophy is the attempt to solve a justificatory problem by converting it into a deliberative problem. Justifying social arrangements requires showing that all citizens have sufficient reason to accept the arrangement.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The morality of human extinction

Suppose that a social practice emerged that led people to disvalue parenting and thus to forebear from having children.  Also, this social practice enabled all individuals to lead peaceful, prosperous, and valuable lives.  Suppose also that at some point all of humanity comes to engage in this practice, thus leading all of humanity to disvalue parenting and cease having children.  As a result, this practice leads to a point where humanity eventually dies out: the human species goes extinct, but in the process all individuals lead valuable lives, maximizing goal and desire satisfaction.

The question is this: if a social practice were to lead to all people living valuable lives but also to the extinction of humanity, what is the moral status of such a practice?  Is extinction a moral bad?  Why (or why not)?  Particularly on a contractarian account of social morality, why should I care about human extinction?  What does/doesn't this say about the normative significance of evolutionary stories (such as found in chapter 3 of Gaus, The Order of Public Reason)?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Rationality, Criminals, and the "Score of a Lifetime"

We often see movies in which criminals enter into a conspiracy the outcome of which is the "score of a lifetime."  Think Ocean's Eleven.  At the same time, however, we often see movies where some member of the group double-crosses the rest, usually killing the crew, in order to take home the entire pot of gold rather than his individual share.  Think The Italian Job.  So my question is this:

is it ever rational for criminals to enter into a criminal conspiracy the goal of which is the "score of a lifetime"?

The target -- the score of a lifetime -- seems to suggest a one-off cooperative scheme.  So how can one rationally enter into such an arrangement?  Think prisoners' dilemma situations.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Nothingness and fear of death

This is an interesting column:

This captures much of some of my currently-held beliefs regarding what is most likely:

"How did 1950 feel to you?" she asked him. Tony was confused. That was long before he was born. Stella knew this. Why ask such a question? But before he could respond, Stella answered the question herself.

"You didn't exist in 1950 and at some point in the future you will once again cease to exist. That's really it, you know. One day you came into being, and you sucked at life itself, grabbing everything you could. You learned, you lived, if lucky, you loved. And one day it simply ceases to be. What is there to fear? Did the time before your birth traumatize you or cause you pain? No. You weren't there to be traumatized or to feel pain. And someday you, and I as well, will simply stop being. It will be as it was for that eternity before our births. The world, for us, came into existence the day we were born and it will cease the day we die. There is an eternity after our death, and an eternity before our birth. Our life is like a slim, but wonderful book sitting between two vast bookends of nothingness. Why worry about the nothingness when we have such a wonderful volume in our hands right now?"

As I mentioned above, this captures much of my currently held beliefs about what is likely to come.  I differ, however, in the author’s outlook.  The idea of nothingness is extremely depressing, almost crushingly so, to me anyway.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rationality and individual belief

Lately I’ve been thinking about rationality and individual belief.  Here is my question: how does one rationally choose what to believe in fields that require technical expertise when (1) the individual does not possess such expertise, (2) there is disagreement among experts, and (3) the disagreement is deep and fundamental, usually the result of different comprehensive worldviews?  I have in mind important questions regarding economics, science, social theory, etc.  Most of us do not possess advanced degrees and lack the formal training required to make a truly informed decision on many important matters.  Yet most of us nevertheless believe some theory rather than another, and believe strongly in it, often evincing frustration (and even anger) towards those with opposite beliefs.  So how is it that we come to have these beliefs?  Can these beliefs be the result of a rational process?  How is that process rational?  We usually do not take it to be rational to believe something simply because a majority believes it (leaving aside the Condorcet Jury Theorom), so counting heads seems to be out.  What should we do?

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Quote of the Day

Although experience teaches us that men live in violence and are prone to fight one another before the advent of external compulsive legislation, it is not experience that makes public lawful coercion necessary. The necessity of public lawful coercion does not rest on a fact, but on an a priori Idea of reason, for, even if men were to be ever so good natured and righteous before a public lawful state of society is established, individual men, nations and states can never be certain they are secure against violence from one another because each will have the right to do what seems just and good to him, entirely independently of the opinion of others.  -Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals: The Doctrine of Recht, §44.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Quote of the Day

"I migrated from the bed to the sofa this morning. For some reason, Herman Cain was there, putting up an electric fence." -Some guy on Twitter (HT Bryan Caplan).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Some thoughts on voter irrationality and the authority of 'experts'

Here are some arm-chair thoughts regarding the rationality of certain beliefs.  Many economists, political scientists, and moral/political philosophers criticize democratic decision-making based on the claim that voters are ignorant, irrational (see Caplan (2007)), and prone to mob-mentality.  A premise utilized in the criticism of democratic decision-making is common-sense claim that just because a majority of voters believe X is the case doesn’t make it so (whether X stands for some economic policy or moral proposition).

In The Myth of the Rational Voter (2007), Bryan Caplan argues that voters are not just ignorant, they are irrational and systematically biased in judging economic policies.  In furtherance of this claim, Caplan compares certain beliefs held by a large portion of the voting public to the prevailing views of the economics profession.  He notes that voters systematically choose bad policies as judged by economic experts.  As a result, democracies choose bad policies.  Using this evidence, Caplan suggests that it is plausible for economic experts to have political authority: individuals should obey the economic policy decisions of economists because they should recognize that their beliefs diverge significantly from what the experts in the field believe, and this divergence is likely the result of cognitive biases.  In a follow up paper, Caplan writes:

Once we set aside autonomy concerns, though, Estlund’s expert/boss “fallacy” makes sense.  Given the claim that “The experts are more likely to be right about X than us,” it is hard to deny that “We should do what the experts think about X.”  If economists are better able to weigh the merits of free trade and protection, there has to be a presumption that we should adopt the trade policy that economists think best.  Of course, you could deny that economists know better; but once you grant that premise, it is hard to see why you shouldn’t heed their judgment.

So suppose we grant that we should heed experts’ judgments.  This admission quickly raises the next question: What should experts do if someone violates the moral imperative to heed their advice?   In a democratic context, this question becomes: Would it be justifiable for experts to overrule the majority for its own good – i.e., for experts to act as “bosses”?  Once we set aside arguments from autonomy, as Estlund seems to do, it is hard to see any principled objection to this expert/boss inference (not “fallacy”).  Think about it this way: By assumption, an expert knows more than you do, and you won’t listen.  Without challenging these premises, how could you block the expert/boss inference other than by saying “I have a right to make the wrong decision”?

To be clear, Caplan is not suggesting that experts should always have political authority, for he leaves aside arguments based on rights, autonomy, and pragmatic concerns (e.g., who is to police the experts?).  Rather, he is making a claim that it is at least pre facie reasonable to expect individuals to heed the proscriptions of economists.

Now, here are my concerns about this.  If we recognize that majority voting qua decision procedure possesses no epistemic authority (i.e., just because a majority believes that X is the case does not show that X is actually the case), how should the economically-ignorant laymen (i.e., those without a PhD in economics) choose which expert-backed opinion to believe?  The data set Caplan utilizes in support of his claim that voters differ from experts are surveys of economists.  The problem is that there is never unanimity in beliefs; rather, we often see some percentage split among these experts.  Sometimes the split is 75-25, 65-35, 80-20, etc.  But if majority voting is not a proper tool for making decisions among the population writ large, why is it so among economic experts?  How is it rational to place faith in this decision-procedure in light of the fact that experts disagree?  How are we to judge the competing claims of experts?

One may argue that an economist is not an “expert” if they do not share the prevailing views of the profession.  But this seems to beg the question, for the important problem precisely is why should we grant “expert” status (and thus obey) to the views of “the majority” of the profession.

Perhaps Caplan discusses this issue in his book or in follow-up work.  Perhaps the answer is based on some kind of Condorcet Jury Theorem application (claiming that economists are more than 50% likely to get the answer right, that there is no evidence of systematic bias among economists, etc.).  I’m skeptical, but I have to go back and read his book (which I haven’t read in 4 years or so).  Anyway, these are some things I have been pondering.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Central issues in political philosophy, Part 1:

I thought it would be helpful to keep a running list of the major issues in political philosophy, as set forth by the philosophers I am reading.  Here is the first installment.

"The main current of contemporary liberal political theory seeks to develop a post-Enlightenment account of politics.  The question driving contemporary liberalism ... is whether ordered political life based on mutual respect, with a politics that aims at justice, is possible in the modern world of deep disagreement about values, justice and what is reasonable." - Gerald F. Gaus, Contemporary Theories of Liberalism x (2003).

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Quote of the Day

John Stuart Mill, in discussing the (democratic) need for a system of proportional representation:

“In a really equal democracy, every or any section would be represented, not disproportionately, but proportionately. A majority of the electors would always have a majority of the representatives; but a minority of the electors would always have a minority of the representatives. Man for man they would be as fully represented as the majority. Unless they are, there is not equal government, but a government of inequality and privilege: one part of the people rule over the rest …” -John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government 146 (1861).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Quote of the Day

Another gem from Lomasky:

“Rights without foundations are treacherous entities. … Rights are so easy to claim, but so terribly difficult to justify. Naked appeals to intuition or moral insight too often supplant analysis, and, not surprisingly, one person’s right is another’s fantasy. The result can be pleasing only to the moral skeptic.” - Loren Lomasky, Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community vii (1987).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Quote of the Day

“Bentham had as vivid an appreciation as Karl Marx … of the ways in which mysteries and illusions, often profitable to interested parties, have clustered round social institutions, concealing the fact that they with their defects are human artefacts, and encouraging the belief that the injustices and exploitation which they permit must be ascribed to nature and are beyond the power of men to change.  ‘Law’ says Bentham ‘shows itself in a mask’, and much that he wrote was designed to remove it.”  -H.L.A. Hart, Essays on Bentham 2 (1982).

Friday, January 13, 2012

Quote of the Day

"[R]egard for someone as a rights holder is grounded in the recognizability of that being as a distinct individual.  It is not personhood which calls for respect but rather distinct persons.  Between these two conceptions there is a sharp divide, one separating an ethic in which individualism is valued from an ethic subscribing entirely to an impersonal standard of value."  -Loren Lomasky, Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community 167 (1987).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Re: Re: Property Requirements for Voting and Other Misguided Ideas

Here is a response by a different commentator to my reply over at that dogmatic libertarian blog.  It is nice to see a somewhat more reasoned response and at least some willingness to engage in philosophical debate.

Too many floating abstractions in what you have provided. Start by considering what property is, what an owner of property is, the relationship between the two and why it is up to the owner to determine what the use of HIS property is to be.

Quoting, “If I choose to play Russian roulette with your head and the chamber that comes up happens to be empty, would I have “interfered” with your liberty?”

In this instance you are choosing to threaten the well-being, indeed the very life, of another person with an extreme violence and very destructive behaviour. Whatever happens they will never be the same after your offensive action. What gives you the right to dispose of their life, or threaten to, in some game of chance you operate? Turn the scenario around and consider whether I have a right to put a gun to your head. Do I own your life? Is it mine to dispose of in a game of chance, according some arbitrary whim I wish to play through? Are you my property to injure, make suffer, torture, bully, threaten, scare, emotionally scar etc? Whose property is your body and your life? Can any other person have the right to own it?

You need to carefully consider what property is and what that means. I recommend you read some of Prof Hans-Herman Hoppe’s work on ths subject. That would be a strong running start.

You write, “Does driving 65 mph rise to this level of risk/threats? Does 75? How about 95mph? Most importantly, who decides?”

The owner of the property decides. Ask for the name of the owner of the road. After all, it is the owner of the property who decides what the rules of said property are going to be. He sets the rules and you follow them if you wish to use his property, in this case a road. Hence, if you decide that a road where the owner has set no speed limit is too dangerous for you, then you don’t go there. He owns his property, just as you own yours (you own yourself). Now if the road owner set a limit of 5mph and required the presence of a man with a red flag, then you’d need to obey that (assuming you want to drive on his road). If not, then do not go there. It’s his property and so he decides what the requirements for you to use his property are. Simple enough really.

Quoting, “I will demand a say in the process.”

You can demand all you like but you have no control over the disposition, employment and/or disposal of that which is not your property. It aint yours, so as a non-owner you have no say in the process the owner employs to decide what to do with his property. Sure, you might like to try and persuade him to choose a particular option from a set of alternatives, but he is ultimately the one who decides. It has nothing to do with you. You have no say in his business. That is, HIS property.

Quoting, “Driving a car that releases substances that are causally contributory to cancer and other diseases is an interference.”

You would need to prove that the use of the car was causal. That is, you need to prove that specific substances caused your cancer and that they were sourced from a car. If you can show that then you have a case which requires redress. If not, then there is nothing to consider. All you would have accomplised then is the generation of an arbitrary claim (an equivalent of saying there are fairies in my garden).

None of this requires a democratic process, a say, voting, a decision making procedure or any of that. What it does require is the thorough understanding of what property is.

Here is my response:

Thank you for the response. Here are my disagreements.

First, the two examples were meant to indicate that risky behavior and/or threatening behavior are additional burdens for a libertarian theory of basic rights that cannot be determined by resort to simple noninterference/nonaggression without an additional theory of impermissible noninterference. Here is a slight alteration of the Russian roulette example. Suppose that I perform this twisted game while you are sleeping at my house (you needed a place to crash after watching the Giants beat the Falcons). I pull the trigger but alas the chamber is empty. You are never the wiser to this occurrence. I believe that this Russian roulette is morally impermissible and exemplifies the fact that risky behavior, in addition to physical force, violates basic rights. But once we recognize this moral fact, many additional issues arise: what other behavior is impermissibly risky? For example, should we allow a train to pass by my property despite the fact that it may produce sparks and light my house on fire? What gives them the right to risk my property and my life? You can cite to Hoppe all you want, but reasonable people, including reasonable libertarian philosophers, disagree on these issues. Who decides?

This brings me to my second point. I am familiar with Hoppe, I have read Rothbard numerous times, and I am very familiar as to what “property” is and requires. (In actuality, it is not “property” that is important but the concept of “rights.” Property in and of itself has no moral value. Only the addition of “rights” gives the concept of property any moral standing.) That being said, it is the case that reasonable libertarian philosophers disagree over the nature and extent of property rights. Indeed, Roderick Long, a card-carrying member of the LvMI community, argued for the importance of recognizing public rights in property, thus re-opening all the questions of risky behavior as exemplified by the speeding example. Whether you agree with him or not, whether he is correct or not, is beside the point. What is important is that his view is reasonable. Unless you profess to transcend the realities of the human condition and our limited cognitive capacities and knowledge, you will recognize the potential fallibility of your own position. This does not mean you should give up in setting forth a conception of justice and property rights; rather, it means you ought to recognize that reasonable people can and do disagree, even within the libertarian framework.

Third, you note that “You can demand all you like but you have no control over the disposition, employment and/or disposal of that which is not your property. It aint yours…” The problem here is that the issue precisely is which property is rightfully whose and the requirements of justice. To the extent that I disagree with Owner X’s claim to justice and a certain conception of property rights, I will thereafter claim a right to reparation for harm. In pursuance thereof, I will “get my boys” and make damn well sure that I have “control over the disposition, employment and/or disposal” of what I believe is my property. You can pound the table all you like with Hoppe and Rothbard, but I will pound the table in return with Lomansky, Gaus, Nozick, and Locke. To make things really interesting, I could introduce David Friedman and other utilitarian anarchist-capitalists and/or libertarians (such as Richard Epstein) in order to really illustrate the disagreements possible in a libertarian political unit. Again, who decides?

The libertarian theories of property rights, contract rights, torts, etc. do not provide for an all-encompassing, self-contained, neatly packaged institutional system with no room for reasonable disagreement. So there will always be disagreement, even among libertarians, as to issues such as criminal punishment, adverse possession, intellectual property (cite all you want to Kinsella, libertarians disagree), easements, “offer and acceptance,” drunk driving (if public property is recognized), negligence, etc. You may have your own theory (or Hoppe’s) hoping to provide an answer to these problems, but so will others with incompatible and mutually exclusive solutions. The issue thus falls back once again to who decides. Who has the authority to settle these disputes? Who has authority to enforce settlement?

Because decisions must be made on these issues and because of the realities of the human condition–cognitive biases, moral fallibility, limited knowledge–individuals will reasonably reject the claim of philosopher kings to posses moral and political authority. Their claim “to know” better than everyone else (i.e., a claim to theoretical authority) will be looked at with reasonable suspicion, especially if they are unwilling to listen to and take note of voices of disagreement in a deliberative and inclusive process. Their claim to the obligatoriness of their conception of morality, justice, and property rights (i.e., a claim to practical authority) will thus be reasonably rejected, for they have not been able (or willing) to justify to their fellow libertarian citizens their imposition of a political system. They will thereby lack the moral legitimacy to enforce their regime.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Re: Property Requirements for Voting and Other Misguided Ideas

Here is a sadly amusing reply to my comment over at that dogmatic libertarian blog:
"Sounds like Marxist claptrap to me. I even note you included a proletariat backstory to lend authenticity to your views. Also, why is justice in quotes?
Anyone disagree?”

This is the type of silliness, dogmatism, and ignorance within certain Austro-libertarian circles that saddens me.  As you all may know, this characterization of my views is pretty comical.  It’s unfortunate that diversity of views and informed discussion and debate is shunned by these factions within the “libertarian tent.”  Here is my response:

Wow, I can honestly say that I have never been called a "Marxist" before.  Although certainly not on my bucket list, I guess I owe you thanks for helping me check that one off.

First, the back story is not to lend authenticity to my views.  I could have picked any two different individuals from vastly different communities with vastly different backstories to make the same point.

Second, I put *justice* in quotation marks not intending to use scare quotes, but to emphasize that justice is an interpretive concept susceptible to differing conceptions and in need of moral argumentation in support of the conception put forth.  Perhaps I should have used italics instead.  My apologies.

Third, in order to assuage your concerns vis-a-vis a Marxist conspiracy, I will simply note that the problems associated with the human condition (moral fallibility, cognitive biases, limited information) is front and center in the political theory of John Locke.  Cognitive biases is what Locke is after in discussing the problems associated with persons "being a judge in their own case."  Fast forward a few centuries to the point I was making above in response to the claim that only property owners should be afforded the franchise: if I know that persons' conceptions of justice are skewed by their cognitive biases, thereby downplaying my interests in favor of their own (even if granting them good faith), it is unjustifiable to enforce those laws against me in which I had no say in their process of promulgation, i.e., those laws in which I was denied participation.  This is because these laws are necessarily skewed in favor of those who took part in the law-making process. 

Moreover, although this problem is acute in a pluralistic political unit in which people fundamentally disagree over the principles of justice and the good life, it is also a problem in more homogenous societies.  So even if we assume a libertarian political community in which all the citizens agree on the fundamental principles of justice (liberty as noninterference, Lockean homesteading, vast contractual rights, etc.), people would *still* disagree over the contours of these rights and their application.  For example, what is the status of risky or threatening behavior?  If I choose to play Russian roulette with your head and the chamber that comes up happens to be empty, would I have "interfered" with your liberty?  And if so, what of other risky or threatening behavior?  Does driving 65 mph rise to this level of risk/threats?  Does 75?  How about 95mph?  Most importantly, who decides?  In light of cognitive biases, moral fallibility, and limited information, I will not simply trust you and a small group to make the proper decisions.  I will demand a say in the process. 

Another example in case you are unconvinced.  As noted by David Friedman and Loren Lomasky, the rather miniscule 'interferences' in property and causal determinants of 'interference' raise questions of what is an *impermissible* interference.  Driving a car that releases substances that are causally contributory to cancer and other diseases is an interference.  So is shining a flashlight onto someone's property.  Are these *interferences* to be proscribed in the libertarian society?  The answers are not obvious and reasonable libertarian philosophers and citizens alike disagree.  The basic point is that these determinations do not read off of "the libertarian ideal" in a straightforward deductive way.  Nevertheless, a decision *must* be made: are we to forbid these actions or allow them?  Because a decision must be taken, a decision procedure is required.  This is where the democratic ideal comes into play: in light of the human condition (cognitive biases, moral fallibility, limited information) individual citizens are entitled to a say in the process of decision-making if they are to be obliged to abide by the system of laws and property rights in existence in the libertarian political society.

Property Requirements for Voting and Other Misguided Ideas

Over at a dogmatically libertarian blog, a commenter had this to say in regards to voting in American democratic society:

The Founders did not hand the voting franchise to every citizen. Each state set rules for voting—but a consensus included: Literate, Free Man, Property Owner were the common requirements.
Literate – presumes the voter will be apprised of the issues of the day. Today’s media transmits information in several forms. Literacy is not required to view videos. Testing to verify intellect -a one time test (the one given to new citizens) as a prerequisite to vote.
Free Man – presumes the voter acts on his free will; not under the control, or obligation to another person/group. Government dependents are disqualified.
Property Owner – presumes the voter holds a vested interest in the free market and comprehends property rights. State residents who rent are disqualified.
These simple policies would assure a cogent, responsible citizen who holds a vested interest in property rights defines the voter.

Here is my response:

I have to disagree. These policies would assure a cogent voter more in tune with their own property rights and their own conceptions of justice and legitimate holdings. As made clear by Christiano, Dahl, and many many others, there is pervasive disagreement as to what “justice” and property rights requires. In collective decision-making, the principle of justice requires us to weigh and compare the interests of other persons who are very different. However, we are morally fallible and likely to be mistaken about what those interests are and how to compare them. In addition, the principles by which one is to bring together these complex interests are difficult to discern and asses, and these difficulties are exacerbated when we try to assess the interests of others.

Furthermore, we all suffer from cognitive biases that skew our judgments regarding questions of justice and the common good, thus resulting in our undervaluing the interests of those from different communities with different worldviews. Individuals’ judgments of justice are more sensitive to their own interests than to the interests of others, and we are more sensitive to our own harms, downplaying the harms of others. Thus, even good-faith controversies over principles of justice often reflect conflict of interest: we necessarily understand our own interests better, inducing us to interpret the interests of others in a way that assimilates our own. Therefore, “no citizen wants to be treated in accordance with someone else’s conception of [justice]” because such a conception is likely to skew her interests and downplay her burdens; rather, she wants to be treated in a way that she can agree that she is being treated as an equal and fairly.  [Thomas Christiano, The Authority of Democracy, 3 J.Political Philosophy 266, 272-73 (2004)].

As such, we cannot place blind trust in others to “vote responsibly” when those others are in fundamentally different positions in the social environment. I grew up in a middle class home, started working at 16 on the docks, I am a renter, an attorney, and recently returned to school as a philosophy graduate student. As such, I am extremely distrustful of the conception of justice and property rights held by, e.g., those who grew up in affluent Massachusetts home, first home bought by their parents, the recipient of a trust fund, etc. (I probably value hard work and responsibility a little more than they, with a different understanding what it truly means). Without poisoning the well, but without knowing these people and what their actual views are, it is likely that they hold moral intuitions, conceptions of the good/justice very different from my own.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Some quick thoughts on the "Libertarian movement"

With all the Ron Paul hoopla these days, I thought I would add some quick thoughts on libertarianism that have been stirring for a while but are, alas, simply knee-jerk reactions to what I read on the internet, "libertarian" blogs, conversations (email threads!) with friends, etc.  The biggest problem with the “Libertarian movement” as I see it is that it is ignorant of good political philosophy. Thus, you find many vomiting the sound-bites of Mencken, Nock, and other journalists, quoting Mises and Rothbard ad nauseam (both economists who later hoped to dabble in political philosophy). Unfortunately, these ‘libertarians’ are often simultaneously badly informed of the most influential political philosophy of the last 50 years (Rawls, Dworkin, Nagel, Raz, Christiano, Gaus (a libertarian!), Pettitt, Waldron, AJ Simmons (philosophical anarchist!), Habermas, Scanlon, Scheffler, Walzer, Henry Richardson etc. etc.). To make matters worse, most libertarians, especially of the Austrian bent, have zero theory of ideal government in the face of massive disagreement on matters of justice and the good. Here’s a hint: go back and actually read Hobbes and Locke (and definitely Waldron and Jean Hampton on this point) to understand what Waldron calls “the circumstances of politics.” The insight of Hobbes and Locke is this: people come together, they trade, they interact in innumerable ways. Thus, certain fundamental decisions regarding the structure of these relationships must be made. A fundamental question of political philosophy is how are these decisions to be made when those who need an answer fundamentally disagree (to me, the identification of a “People” is the most important question for political philosophy; one answer is “those who have voluntarily agreed to live in political community; another is that in addition to contractualism, associative relationships can give rise to a legitimate claim to political community). As I see it, Austro-”libertarians” would simply force their vision of justice upon everyone else, coercing those who do not agree to get in line. This is because they do not have a theory of democracy. It’s unfortunate that such self-professed libertarians have lost sight of classical liberalism and its commitment to the democratic ideal.

My harsh criticism comes from someone who views himself as a libertarian. I have been profoundly influenced by Nozick, Rothbard, and Hayek. Yet the repugnance towards the democratic ideal found in certain contemporary libertarian cliques is disheartening indeed.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Democratic Ideal

The ideal underlying democratic legitimacy—the ultimate moral value driving democracy as a political ideal—is the idea of self government.  This ideal is encompassed in the popular saying “We the people govern ourselves.”

I believe that there is much insight in this popular saying and it is helpful to take a minute to think about it.  In fact, careful analysis indicates that within this little saying is found the most important concepts and ideals that ground democratic legitimacy and political authority.  We must therefore analyze and break apart the saying, isolating the concepts involved and the values underlying them, in order to appreciate what democratic self governance is all about.

Let’s take a look at the saying: “We the people govern ourselves.”  Notice the closely connected yet distinct concepts: (1) We (2) the people (3) govern (4) ourselves.  At first glance, it appears that (1), (2), and (4) are identical.  On the surface this may seem so, but I think there are distinct concepts and very different values that underlie each (at least between (1) and (2), for I admit that my argument that (1) and (4) as distinct may seem to be overly semantic).

The idea of “We” is different from the general concept and ideal of “the people.”  It is more concrete and actualized, signifying something important between individuals, some connection that is normatively significant that transcends the political arena.  It is in the domain of the social, some social fact about actually existing persons that connects them in a morally-meaningful way.  Although I do not adhere to some Hegelian idea of the One, there is an importance—a fundamental value—in an actual social relationship that gives birth to a claim of “We.”

This idea of “We” is what gives rise to the idea and claim of “the people.”  This is a more general and abstract idea, a normative concept that belongs to the political sphere.  As such, “the people” is what “We” are claiming to be, which further gives rise to the rights, privileges, powers, and obligations that political legitimacy claims to encompass.  So “the people” is intimately connected to yet distinct from the idea of “We.”  It is a guidepost, some political goal that “We” strives for (moreover, I think “the people” should be recognized almost as a pro-noun here, so I will now refer to “the People” as part of the normative political ideal underlying democratic authority).

In my next post, I will further explore the values underlying “We” and “the People.”  I will also begin a discussion of the concept of “governing” “ourselves.”  In the meantime, I would love to hear any thoughts you may have.

Brief remarks on American "democracy" in Iowa

As you both know, I am not a "Conservative" or a big-L "Liberal," so I have no horse in popular presidential politics (my 'libertarianism' sways between philosophical anarchism, classical liberalism, and public reason liberalism).  That being said, I do have thoughts about legitimate democratic authority (long story short, it's based on individual autonomy, associative relationships, political equality, proportionality (read: it's a very rare thing)). So when I see a "democratic" procedure in which a little less than 75% of the voting "public" vote for "some other guy than Candidate X" and yet Candidate X claims some sort of "victory,"  I sigh and further recoil into my own world of complete disenchantment, wondering if even progress towards the democratic ideal is possible.