Woods and Kinsella on Child Abandonment and Libertarianism

Tom Woods has a podcast out with Stephan Kinsella examining several arguments made by Matt Zwolinski against the non-aggression principle (see “Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle”). While I agree with the majority of their critique of Zwolinski’s article, I’ll here address my one major disagreement.

In October, I discussed the child abandonment issue for libertarianism at length, mentioning both the views of Murray Rothbard and those of Walter Block. As I noted, a Rothbardian, faced with the situation of a parent being thrown in jail for allowing his child to starve, would absurdly have to complain not about the blatant murder of the child, but instead about the fact that the parent was thrown in jail. With no positive obligations, Rothbard’s view of libertarianism allowed for a society where parents starved their children in the masses. There were no limitations and violence could not be used to punish or prevent these parents. Fortunately, one could, however, shout at them and tell them what terrible people they were (from one’s own property).

Block’s view was an improvement but still had some unreasonable leftovers. According to Block, in a libertarian society, a parent would have to notify as many people as practically possible around them (e.g. through a newspaper, or through adoption agencies, etc.) if he chose to give up ownership of his children. In addition, he would not be able to stop those trying to adopt his kids from coming onto his property in order to homestead them. However, in situations where the adults in the community were unwilling to take his children, or unable, due to poverty or lack of knowledge (due to a slow spread of information), the children could still starve to death, and no use of force to either prevent the parent from doing this or to punish him in the aftermath would be allowed.

In Woods’s podcast with Kinsella, the two promoted a third view and offered an interesting analogy. Suppose you push a person into a lake and he can’t swim so he starts drowning. According to Kinsella, by your voluntary action of pushing the person into the lake and aggressing against him, you now have a positive legal obligation to save him. Most of us agree with this, but is it libertarian? Perhaps just as you lose your rights when you aggress against someone, and they have the right to punish you and take restitution, you also have an obligation to reduce the damaging impact of your previous aggression. I find this plausible, but it does need to be laid out systematically. For now, let’s move on.

Like Block’s attempted fix, Kinsella’s unfortunately also leaves the child abandonment issue unsolved and libertarianism open to other criticisms under the category of positive obligations. For the former, consider acts of rape. Let’s say a woman is raped by a man, becomes pregnant, and has a child. If the man disappears or is imprisoned, he may not effectively be able to or be called on to take care of the baby. If the child’s custody then falls to the woman, how is Kinsella to deal with a situation in which she chooses to abandon the child? Since a mother who is a rape victim did not voluntarily choose to have sex and create that child, it seems that she, unlike the voluntary mother, has no positive obligation to take care of it. It seems, then, according to Kinsella and Woods, that a rape victim who becomes a mother can let her child starve to death.

What if we take Kinsella’s general view and add on to it Block’s view for cases of rape (I see no necessary contradiction between the two beliefs)? (EDIT 1-13: I’ve just realized that it is unnecessary for someone with Kinsella’s view to add on Block’s view. Kinsella’s view doesn’t just create a positive duty for someone who voluntarily has a baby, but also for someone who voluntarily homesteads a baby. However, the 2nd criticism in this paragraph still applies and the “drowning child” criticism further below applies as well.) Then the rape victim who chooses to abandon her child must notify as many adults as she practically can around her and not stop others who wish to adopt her child from coming onto her property in order to homestead him or her. However, we are then back with the same problem we had originally with Block’s view. In situations where a rape victim wants to abandon her child and there are no adults around willing or able (perhaps, again, due to poverty or lack of information) to adopt the child, she can legally let it starve to death. In addition, there is another scenario that proves troublesome. What if, after the baby’s birth, the mother who was raped never claims ownership of the child but simply lets it be? If she never homesteads her child, then Block’s solution doesn’t work; she doesn’t have to notify anyone she is giving up ownership if she never had ownership in the first place. This is hardly the extreme reductio we started out with due to the rarity of the situations, but it nevertheless poses a problem for NAP libertarianism: it threatens the principle’s universality.

Finally, what of the “other criticisms under the category of positive obligations” that the views of Kinsella and Block (respectively, but also if combined) leave libertarianism open to? Consider Peter Singer’s “Drowning Child” thought experiment. Let’s say you’re walking to class one day and you notice a child drowning in a shallow pond nearby. You could save him fairly easily and without risk to yourself, but you’d have to go through some trouble of getting your clothes wet and muddy. Do you have a positive obligation, and one that can be enforced, to save that child from death?

Most of us would agree there’s a positive moral obligation to save the child. Any person who chose not to because they didn’t care enough or were lazy would be an unethical human being. Would it be an enforceable (or legal) obligation though? This isn’t as clear, but I think most would still fall on the side of saying yes. It’s possible I’d oppose a “duty to rescue” law (like the Good Samaritan law on Seinfeld) forcing people to act in such situations, but my opposition would not center around it being strictly immoral to use force in such situations, but instead around practical reasons, e.g. is it easy to tell the motivations of the person, could he have just frozen up, was there risk involved, would a law be the right way to incentivize people? Meanwhile, the NAP libertarian would be forced to declare any law created or any force used as punishment against the bystander an aggression. If the government fined him $100, libertarians would call it theft. If an adult late to the scene came and punched him in rage for his inaction, libertarians would call it assault, and consider it justified for the “assault victim” (yes, we’re talking about that guy who just let a little kid drown to death) to press charges.

For those that are still unsure, luckily, it’s quite easy to come up with variations of the drowning child example to find other situations we can agree with more easily. For example, now let’s say that you’re a few miles away on the phone with your friend, and your friend is the one who walks by a shallow pond with a child drowning in it. He tells you about the situation and how the little girl is kicking and slapping her arms about wildly but says he’s going to be late for class and doesn’t want to help. You shout “How can you be concerned about your class at a time like this!? Go save the kid!” He refuses. At your wit’s end, you angrily and truthfully shout into the phone “If you don’t save the kid, the next time I see you, I’m going to beat the snot out of you.” Your friend, realizing your anger and believing your threat, finally decides to save the child.

If it wasn’t for the threat of force against your friend, the child would have died. Because of that action, the girl is alive and your friend has done his duty; he may even realize this one day and thank you for it. Again, most of us would agree that this threat is perfectly just. We might argue about some practical considerations like “maybe he should have tried persuading him without the threat at first,” but ultimately if a threat was necessary, it would definitely be justified.

Unfortunately, the non-aggression principle has no way to deal with this. Kinsella and the libertarians who agree with him must call the threat unjust because, like the rape victim who lets her child starve to death, there is no voluntary action linking the potential savior to the dying child and creating a positive enforceable duty between them. Finally, even those that agree with Block or want to apply a combination of both views, have no way of doing this either since the potential savior never homesteaded the drowning girl, as a voluntary parent does for his child, and therefore also has no link to her to create a positive enforceable duty.


Image Credit: wallpaperfo.com


Posted on January 12, 2016, in Ethics, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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