matt: You there, Carolyn?
caro: Matt: If you logged in before 1:30 EST, please log out, reload your browser window, and log back in to make yourself the speaker. Don't open user.html while you're answering questions: it will confuse you badly, and it will confuse me even more. Thanks!
Hello, everyone. People with username and password should have two windows open: one at http://enlightenment.supersaturated.com/cgi/talkin.cgi, and one at http://enlightenment.supersaturated.com/onlinecon/user.html
Your comments will go to user.html, and I will be able to communicate with you the
matt: I just logged in a few minutes ago, so I guess I should be OK.
matt: By the way, good job scheduling this before the NCAA tourney starts back up. Go Wildcats. :-)
caro: Well, that _was_ my primary concern, so I'm glad I was successful.
caro: Stand by. I'm having difficulting communicating with people in the other window.
caro: We're clear to start now. Matt Zwolinski is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at
the University of Arizona, specializing in distributive justice. Thanks for coming today,
Matt! I've got several questions already from Bryan Register. We can open with those, if
you like; if you have something else to address first, go ahead.
matt: Actually, would you mind if I said something briefly about my motivation in writing the paper?
caro: Please do!
matt: I'm going to try to paste in some comments below from an email I sent to David Kelley after reading his paper on "Life, Liberty and Property." I wish I'd read that piece before submitting this paper, as it covers a lot of the same ground. Here they are:
Part of my motivation for writing my
paper -- and this is something I should probably discuss explicitly in it -- was to point out the futility of a certain sort of theoretical
monism in the defense of libertarian rights. What I object to, in essence, is the idea that libertarianism can be defended by postulating one ultimate value -- specifically, freedom from coercion -- and then showing that libertarian rights and only libertarian rights are completely compatible with this value.
I think that this sort of approach is bound to fail. Libertarianism does defend liberty
of a certain sort. But it also restricts liberty in certain ways. Libertarians should face up to that issue, and move on to give arguments about *why* certain sorts of liberty are more important,
or worthwhile, than others.
Not only do I think this will give us a truer political philosophy -- a more accurate picture of how exactly libertarian rights map on to the moral universe -- I also think it has an important rhetorical and pedagogical advantage. If you think libertarianism is the only
theory committed to liberty, and everyone else from Al Gore to John Rawls is arguing in favor of pure slavery, then it's easy to demonize other positions and those who defend them.
Recognizing that there are a plurality of values, and that liberty is just one of many that need to be balanced together to form some very complex whole, allows one to better understand where one's
interlocutors are coming from, and to appreciate the elements of truth their theories capture. I think most people get this at some level, but there are still lot of Objectivists who could really use a lesson in this regard.
caro: I'm all for that.
Here's Bryan Register:
... if it is true that libertarian rights make most men happy, or allow
them to live long lives, or allow them to be financially successful, we
still must worry about how it will affect, say, those born with little in
the way of natural talents or inherited wealth. If there is even one
alternative system of rights under which such a person would be better
off by any of these measures, then we will have failed to validate
libertarian rights for that individual. We will, in effect, be asking him
to sacrifice his well-being for the well-being of others..."
This argument is seemingly quite Rawlsian, in that it establishes as a
prerequisite on a theory of justice (and the O'ist theory of rights, when
tied with any theory of political institutions, a theory of justice in
Rawls's sense) that it make the least well off better off than they would
be in a society governed by any alternative theory of justice. Is this a
fair attribution, and would it bother you? (I don't mean it as an
accusation! - I think Rawls's theory is a deeply attractive one.)
matt: Actually, I don't really want to endorse the position outlined in that quote. There are two ideas in that paragraph. One is the idea that a theory of justice ought to be judged by how well it does by the least well-off. I think there's certainly *something* to that idea, and that how a theory does by the least well off is *one* important element in how we ought to judge that theory. But it's just one element, to be balanced against others. The other idea is that a theory of justice needs to be validated in some way for each individual. Again, there's something to this. But it depends on how we understand 'validate.' I don't think we can show that justice is in the interest of all individuals. I think alot of Objectivists think that this can be shown, but I believe this to be a mistake. We might be able to give a rational argument for why our theory of justice is correct, and thus perhaps 'validate' it for all individuals in the same way that we can validate, say, the laws of science. I'm not sure about that, but I think that's a much more promising path to take.
caro: Would you like to respond to that, Bryan?
caro: Does that mean that, in fact, someone's interests *are* going to have to be
sacrificed for the benefit of others if we are going to administrate our society according
to some theory of justice?
caro: (That last question was from Bryan.)
matt: Well, the short answer is yes. But I'm working with a fairly broad conception of 'interests' here. Objectivists, as I understand, believe there can be no conflicts of interest among rational individuals. I think that the only way you can arrive at this conclusion is by building an awful lot of moral constraints on what counts as one's interest. I suppose that's not impermissible, philosophically, but it's a bit confusing. On the ordinary language use of the word interest, and on a lot of the more philosophically refined senses, people's interests will conflict. And sometimes, justice will ask that we sacrifice the interests of some for the benefit of others.
caro: Bryan, following up on the first question: More importantly, it seems that Rand has a response to such a Rawlsian critique of
capitalism. The critique says that a theory is adequate only if it makes the least well off
as well off as they can be, because no other theory should be adhered to by the least
well off. But Rand might respond with an *Atlas Shrugged* thought experiment. Only
the libertarian society makes the most well off as well off as they can be, and any other
society ought therefore not be adhered to by the most well off. But should the most well
off fail to adhere to a society, then the least well off will suffer greatly. So in fact only
the libertarian society meets the Rawlsian standard! (This point obviously ties in with
your discussion of the limits on freedom for the poor in a libertarian society; Rand could
respond that the poor are more free to act on their rational judgment in a libertarian
than a society which embraces redistribution of any kind, because they will have more
property in such a society.) Does such a response strike you as correct, and what would
its effect be on your own argument?
matt: Quick addendum. I don't want to get too bogged down in any specific example, especially since I;m just coming up with this off the top of my head, but issues of protectionism seem to be a good example of the above sort of conflict. Protectionism genuinely helps some groups in society, and it harms others. Whichever way you think justice comes down, someone's interests are going to be set back.
matt: Bryan, I think there's a lot to the sort of response you give. Free markets really do help the poor, the uneducated, the untalented etc.. in a lot of ways. I'd hesitate, however, in ascribing any sort of necessity to that fact. Whether government regulation or free markets will benefit a given segment of society more is an empirical question. It seems to me a priori unlikely that there will be *no case* in which government regulation can't do a better job than the free market in helping the least well-off. But that's just an a priori hunch. Like I said, if you want to run this sort of argument, all the work is going to need to be done in the empirical realm. But that's OK. I think the defense of the free market *should* be based on largely empirical considerations. There's nothing logically necessary about the desirability of laissez-faire.
matt: Err, that is, no case in which government regulation *can* do a better job...
caro: Regarding the fact that you think someone will have to sacrifice their interests, Bryan asks: Why would, and why should, the victim consent?
matt: Good question. There's probably no good answer that's going to fit every case. Let's take the instance of the 40 year old engineer who's going to lose his job because we're cutting down protectionist trade barriers. We can explain to him the good that will come to society of moving toward free trade. We can tell him that his interests were taken into account -- i.e. that we treated him as a *person* worthy of consideration, not as a *mere* means to the ends of others. We can even try to lessen the burden on him in some way. But, I think that after a while reasons run out. I'm not comfortable with it, but I believe there may come a time when there simply isn't anything we can say to the victim. That's too bad, but if I'm right about the ubiquity of conflicts of interest, then it's simply unavoidable -- a sad fact of reality.
caro: We'll follow up on that last answer in a bit. Meanwhile, here's another question.
From Bryan: You write:
"By fencing up a piece of land, or locking up some other tangible good,
we interfere with others' ability to act on the judgments of their
conceptual faculties, and thereby initiate force against all of mankind."
I think the point you're making is an incisive one. I've thought up two
possible ways of trying to get around the problem, and I wonder what you
think about them.
A. Regard rights as a specifically political, rather than ethical,
concept. Reject the old presupposition that I have a *moral* duty not to
violate your *political* rights. Allow that rights violations might
occasionally be in someone's self-interest, and that on an egoist
foundation, she should attempt to violate rights. But note also that the
victim has a right to self-defense, which she can alienate to a
protective agency (either a gov't or non-monopoly agencies), and so
there's no problem any longer. We leave it up to defense agencies to
protect people's rights, and they'll succeed or fail, and that's it.
caro: I really ought to have put in the second alternative Bryan offered:
B. Argue that persons, due maybe to their inherently social nature or
something, will never find it in their best interests to have inauthentic
(manipulative, dishonest, rights-violating, etc.) relations with others
except in rather extreme situations. So, outside of those extreme
situations, acting within one's rights can't harm others in the way you
suggest, because the actions which they could take were you not to act
within your rights wouldn't have actually been in their advantage anyway,
because they'd have been engaging in inauthentic relations with others.
We don't harm people by making them not do something the doing of which
would harm them.
matt: I'm not sure I understand. The problem I was describing in the section you quoted was this: libertarian rights cannot be derived from an injunction to prevent the initiation of force, because libertarian rights themselves constitute an initiation of force -- fencing up property is the equivalent of threatening anyone who trespasses with physical violence. Now, what I was attacking was one way of grounding political rights in moral concepts. Giving up on that project is an option, but it's certainly not a very attractive one for the moral philosopher. And I'm not sure that Objectivists would be happy with the way you leave the situation stand -- that one individual might have an interest in violating a political right which the other has a (moral? political?) right to defend. If the latter is a moral right, then we have at the very least a conflict of interests, and at worst a conflict of moral rights.
matt: Option B worries me. I guess I think it's a useful project to show how acting within the constraints of morality is often in one's own long term interest. But just as in the political case above, I'd be quite hesitant to assume any sort of necessity here. I just think it's empirically quite implausible that it will _always_ be in one's interests to respect others rights. I don't have any general argument for this -- I suppose we'd just have to look at different situations on a case by case basis.
caro: Based on a question from Phil: Would you say that you are generally adopting a consequentialist approach? An altruistic one?
matt: I consider myself some sort of consequentialist. I don't think any of the arguments in my paper depend on this though. As for whether my approachi is an altruistic one, I suppose that it is, at least in part. I believe that one's own interests are not morally unimportant. And I agree with Rand that the history of ethical philosophy has largely neglected the ways in which a concern for one's self can be a legitimately _moral_ concern. But I don't think that self-interest is the whole story. I think that the interests of others can give us a _primary_ moral reason to act. In other words, the reason I have a moral obligation to help a stranger in desparate need, at least when I can do so at little cost, is that she is a human being in need. It's not that I think she'll pay me back at some point in the future; it's not that I'll feel good about what I've done. The fundamental moral reason that I ought to act lies in her well-being. So altruism, understood as acting for the sake of others, is part of my general moral outlook.
caro: That's an interesting view. I'd like to point out here that I think the terms can get in our way--not just because of the infamy of the word 'altruism' in Objectivist circles, but because of the infamy of the word 'egoist' in other circles. I don't think that what you've said, is, in essence, at odds with the Objectivist position. It's merely an incomplete picture. You've used the word 'altruism' to describe only one aspect of morality, and it is an aspect that I think most of us agree with. But we reserve the word 'altruism' for a system which does _not_ recognize self-interest as a valid motivation for action.
matt: I lost my connection for a second, and so missed anything said after my response to Phil.
caro: (I'm pasting this in again, in case Matt missed it. Then I go on.) That's an interesting view. I'd like to point out here that I think the terms can get in our way--not just
because of the infamy of the word 'altruism' in Objectivist circles, but because of the infamy of the word 'egoist'
in other circles. I don't think that what you've said, is, in essence, at odds with the Objectivist position. It's
merely an incomplete picture. You've used the word 'altruism' to describe only one aspect of morality, and it is an
aspect that I think most of us agree with. But we reserve the word 'altruism' for a system which does _not_
recognize self-interest as a valid motivation for action.
matt: Carolyn: Interesting. I understood the Objectivist position to be one in which self interest was the _sole_ legitimate sorce of moral reasons. But OK, if altruism means that self-interest is never a legitimate source of reasons, then count me out of the altruist camp.
caro: You are correct; self-interest is taken as the sole reason that justifies actions morally. But what is considered to be in one's self-interest is more broadly construed than, e.g., mainstream philosophers traditionally take it. As I see Phil commenting, the word 'benevolence' is often used by egoists, rather than 'altruism'.
Actually, I think that the picture comes together nicely in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, with the notion of acting for your friend's sake for your sake. And of course Aristotle's notion of 'friend' is context-dependent, so in some context it will include relative strangers because they are your friends in the sense of being fellow citizens, for example. People are treated as BOTH means AND ends in themselves.
matt: Quick aside: there are basically two positions in philosophy about the relationship between self-interest and reasons. One is that self-interest can give you reasons, but that before it can give you an all-things considered reason, it has to pass the test of morality. In other words, it's fine for you to pamper yourself, as long as in doing so you don't violate any moral obligation you have to others. The other view is that self-interset can never give you moral reasons in any direct way. Morality is purely impartial between different persons, and hence the only way you ever get to act in your own interst is if morality positively tells you to do so. So the difference is, on one view, morality serves as a check on one's self interest, but one's self-interest is a legitimate source of reasons. On the other view, the impartial perspective of morality is the only source of reasons, and self interest only comes in when mandated by this impartial perspective.
matt: The former sort of view, by the way, is the sort that I endorse.
caro: Phil quotes your paper:
.....a right which Alastair has clearly violated by taking his car without his
permission. Did the rights-violation involve the initiation of physical force? It seems
clear to me that it did not. Alastair encountered no human being in the course of his
But hasn't Rand covered this with her discussions of "indirect"
force? The reason she calls breach of contract indirect force is because property is kept
by mere physical possession rather than by consent. The nullifying of someone's will is
perhaps the component of force I think you should perhaps focus on. And: re the term
'physical': force doesn't have to be against the physical person, but it does have to be a
physical action. So on this understanding, isn't Rand's sense of "force" coherent?
matt: Phil: I'm glad you asked this, since I wanted to respond to the question you raised in email. Yes, I think Rand's notion of force is coherent. The problem isn't incoherence, but rather explanatory force. Suppose you come to me wanting to explain your theory of rights. I want to know what your theory is -- what rights you say people have, under what conditions rights are violated, and so forth. Right now, before you start explaining, your theory is mysterious to me. So you start explaining by saying something like this: rights, on my theory, are violated only when someone initiates force against another. So now you've cleared things up for me. Force isn't a mysterious notion. I have a pre-existing understanding of what force is, and so now I can understand your theory of rights by simply reducing it to instances of the initiation of force. Unless, that is, you mean something different than normal by force. What would make the explanation above a good one is if force simply picks out some natural kind, some phenomena that can be understood without any reference to morality (since, after all, morality is precisely what we're trying to _explain_ here). What would make it a _bad_ explanation is if your concept of force was already dependent on some moral theory, such that I couldn't understand what you meant by force until I already understood some set of background moral assumptions. If _that's_ the case, then you really haven't explained anything at all when you tell me rights are violated by the initiation of force. "Force" considered as a natural kind isn't doing any moral work here, what's really doing the moral work is the background moral theory which is feeding in to your particular concept of force.
matt: So that's the worry. If Objectivists mean something by force such that, say, force can be initiated against physical objects but only if some person has moral ownership rights in that physical object, then talking about "force" doesn't really help, explanation-wise. What we need to talk about then is the background theory of ownership, or whatever other moral concerns make it such that Alastair does indeed initiate force against Bill by driving his car, whereas Bill, when he performs the same physical action, does not.
caro: I'll respond to that with a reply to your paper from Tom, one that seems to start bringing out a more mutually acceptable concept of force: One move that could be made to counter your "no force" argument
with regard to car theft is to ask, "What would Bill have done had he
seen his car about to be stolen?" Bill would have moved to prevent
him, defensively, from doing so--stood in his way, said, "You can't do
that" and so on. Clearly, had Bill known what was going on, the thief
would have had to use force [in the ordinary sense of the word] to overcome Bill's actions in defense of
his property. How do you respond to this?
matt: I'm not sure that helps in the long run. The project, again, is to explain rights by means of the concept of the initiation of force. So Alastair goes to use Bill's car and Bill physically stops him. Alastair pushes Bill out of the way. Who *initiated* force here? Bill was the first person to touch someone else. But we want to claim that his action was defensive, not initiatory. Why? Because he owns the car and is acting in defense of his property right. But this is where we get in trouble. Because, once again, our project is to explain rights in terms of force. But this response uses the concept of rights to explain force! The direction of explanation has to go in one way, otherwise we end up with something that looks rather circular. Summary: So if we use a natural-kind notion of force, it looks as though Bill is the one who initiates force against Alastair. Thus this notion of force is insufficient to serve as an explanation of rights. If, on the other hand, we use a notion of force which is condition by our concept of "ownership," then we're using the concept of rights to explain force, and are thus prohibited from using the concept of force to explain rights. Either way, the explanation of rights in terms of force seems to fail.
caro: I could be reading in too much but it looks like you input the assumption of rights where they might not necessarily be assumed. Why do I have to say that Bill violated my _right_ to the car, rather than that he got it by physically taking it from someone who merely _possessed_ it? Alastair got hold of the car from someone else who possessed it (presumably) by an exchange accepted by both parties, so he didn't get it by force. But he now _has_ it. Now Bill takes it away _from_ Bill--and as Tom points out, in order to do that he will have to do it when Bill isn't looking, or else he will have to engage Bill in combat. So by my account, rights are not assumed to explain why the stealthy acquisition of the car is a case of force. What do you think?
caro: In other words, Alastair is the one who initiated force, not because Bill had a _right_ to the car, but merely because Bill _had_ the car, and would have stepped in to stop him had he known. We could even say this in cases where the car that Bill has is one that he stole. Alastair can still take that from him by force, even though Bill has no right to it by most standards of morality.
matt: I think one of has the names backwards. Let's just call them Thief and Owner to simplify. OK. So Owner's in his house, and Thief comes up to take his car. Case 1: Owner does nothing. Has Thief initiated force? Case 2: Owner comes out and stops Thief from entering the car. Here it looks like you say Thief would have to initiate force because Owner is in possession of the car. But what about Case 3: Owner sees Thief getting into his car, and runs out to stop him, but is too late. Thief is already in the car. Now what? Thief is in possession of the car, at least in the natural-kind sense of the word. My claim, then, is that possession is going to be insufficient ground to distinguish good force from bad force, at least when we understand it as genuinely *mere* possession. But if we build more into it than that, it looks like we're going to get right back to the problem of circularity.
caro: We've come to the unofficial end of the session. I think your last statemet sums up neatly, if you want to end it there; or you can continue as long as you want. If you, Matt, open a second window to look at http://enlightenment.supersaturated.com/onlinecon/user.html, you will see the madness taking place amongst the rabble. I can either let you log out and log back in as a user, or you can just read their comments and write answers here.
I am off to eat lunch! So I thank you very much, Matt, for the discussion. Bye!
matt: Regarding case 1: You might say that even though Owner does nothing, Thief still initiates force because, counterfactually, the owner *could* have come out to stop him and thus been in possession of the car by the time Thief got there. The problem with this is that it's going to be very difficult to specify the paramaters of the counterfactual in any non-arbitrary or question-begging way. In other words, Owner *could* have come out and stopped him, but under what conditions? Presumably, Thief could have gotten there first and snuck off without Owner's noticing under some conditions. Which conditions are morally important?
matt: Thanks alot for hosting Carolyn. It's been fun. I'll switch over to the other URL and hang out there for a while. I'd also be happy to take followup questions over email: mattz_OF_u.arizona.edu
caro: Ok, then, log out, and I'll change your status to user. Then you can log back in. Otherwise your comments won't show up in that window.
caro: Ok, Matt. You can log back in, and you'll be in the other window. This is all done with mirrors.