Category Archives: Ethics

Child Abandonment: Why Kinsella’s Analogy Doesn’t Work

In my last post, I discussed an argument by analogy made by Stephan Kinsella and Tom Woods against the critique that parents have no enforceable obligation to feed or take care of their children in a libertarian society. The analogy was as follows: suppose A pushes B into a lake, and B starts drowning. Under libertarianism, A has aggressed against B, and therefore has an obligation to save B. Likewise, a set of parents that create a child but abandon him have aggressed against that child by putting him in a situation where he will likely die (like B who would likely drown on his own). Because of this, the parents have a positive obligation to take care of that child.

(Note: whenever I say “obligation” or “positive obligation” in this post, I’m referring to a positive enforceable obligation, not merely a positive moral obligation, unless otherwise stated)

Last time, I discussed why even if this argument works, the NAP still leaves rarer cases of child abandonment (e.g. rape) along with positive enforceable obligations to strangers (e.g. a random girl drowning) unsolved. This time I’ll discuss why I think the argument doesn’t even work.

In an interview with Daniel Rothschild about a year ago, Walter Block made some interesting arguments against this analogy. His main argument was that in the case of child abandonment, the parents’ act of creating the child and thus giving life to it actually puts that child in a better situation than he was before. Therefore, the parents giving the child life and then abandoning it would be analagous instead to a situation where B is about to get hit by an oncoming truck, and A pushes him and saves him from the truck but pushes him into a river. A has bettered B’s situation by saving him from the truck, but by pushing him into the river he has only given him a few more minutes to live. In this scenario, it’s not so clear that A has a positive obligation to save B.

However, ever since I heard Kinsella’s original analogy, I took issue with it but I was never able to figure out what that issue was. Listening to Block’s argument clarified it for me. Consider the following:

In making the analogy that if A aggresses against B by pushing him into a lake, A now has a positive obligation to save B, what is the comparable act of aggression supposed to be in the situation of the abandoned child? It certainly isn’t the act of [leaving the child alone] by itself. There are adults all across the earth who have no connection to the child and are leaving the child alone: we wouldn’t consider this an aggression. And it isn’t the act of [creating the life of the child] by itself. This would nonsensically suggest that all sexual acts ending in fertilization constituted aggressions. The act of aggression then is the series of acts, the totality of both creating the life of the child and later abandoning it.

Let’s say that the parents engage in the sexual act at time(t)=0 and and at t=100 they abandon the child. In addition, at t=1 the egg was fertilized and the child’s life came into existence (this necessarily happens after the sexual act since neither the sperm or egg is under the control of either man or woman after the sperm is released and the sperm takes time to reach the egg). Since the totality of both acts is what constitutes the aggression, the parents were aggressing against their child from t=0 -> t=100. But what this means it that the parents were aggressing against the child before it even existed.

As I said before, at t=0 the parents are engaging in the sexual act: the child does not exist yet. At t=1, the child comes into existence. But since someone making the river analogy is calling the series of acts from t=0->t=100 an aggression, they are necessarily saying the parents were aggressing against the child at t=0. Of course, we only know in hindsight that the action at t=0 was part of a series of acts constituting an aggression. But it nevertheless was part of it, and that implies that the parents were aggressing against tthe child before it existed.

This is a clear contradiction. In order to aggress, we must be aggressing against someone. If I attack Bob with a knife, I’m aggressing against Bob, and Bob necessarily exists. If Bob didn’t exist, I couldn’t attack Bob because there is no Bob. Likewise, if Kinsella and Woods say that a set of parents is aggressing against their baby, but the baby doesn’t exist, they are contradicting themselves. Therefore, the analogy does not work.

 

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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.

 

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Nuclear Weapons in a Libertarian Society: A Nuke for Everyone?

A common attempt at a reductio ad absurdum of libertarianism is the nuclear weapons argument: in a society following the non-aggression principle (NAP), wouldn’t every person be free to own a nuclear weapon (and wouldn’t that likely lead to the destruction of civilization)? In a post a few months ago, I argued that child abandonment is a fatal flaw for libertarians, but this time I’ll argue the opposite.

The most common response by libertarians against this reductio starts by pointing out that the NAP allows for the use of  purely defensive force, but not aggressive force (i.e. the initiation of force). For example, if Bob initiates force against Phil, and Phil responds by defending himself against Bob, Bob has committed a crime and Phil has not. But if Phil responds not just by using force against Bob, but by also initiating force against an innocent third party, he has gone beyond his right of self-defense and is now an aggressor himself. Since certain weapons, such as nukes, cannot be pinpointed and necessarily transgress the rights of innocent individuals even if they are directed at an aggressor, individuals have no right to own them.

Many (including previously even myself), especially those familiar with Austrian subjectivist economics, find this argument atrocious. They respond that yes, it’s true that individuals defending themselves can use force against aggressors, but cannot aggress against third parties. And it’s true that nuclear weapons cannot typically be used to defend oneself since it will break this principle by harming innocents. However, a typical use is not the only use. For example, in a very rare situation, perhaps the entire area that a WMD is targeted at contains only aggressors and no innocents. Or perhaps the nuclear weapon is “used” by being sent into space and harming no one. Or perhaps the individual owning the nuclear weapon is someone with merely historical interest in State weaponry and “uses” it by looking at and contemplating it. In other words, even if a weapon is typically used in an aggressive manner, that wouldn’t outlaw all ownership, but only specific uses of or actions with that ownership. For an analogy, just because a gun can be used to aggress against someone doesn’t mean we can outlaw it on that basis: there are many other uses!

What this objection misses (and it is not entirely the fault of those who make the objection – those who make the original argument generally do an extremely poor job explaining it and tend to do so in a misleading way, as I have done on purpose above) is two things: 1) it is not the initiation of force per se that is the issue at hand, but the threat of force, and 2) the way the entire libertarian system is defined, including what can justly be owned, what is considered aggression, and what is considered a threat, has continuum problems and is dependent on what is called the “reasonable man standard.”

Let’s first discuss point #1. The reason I call the original argument misleading is because it makes a person think the main issue at hand is the use of actual force, e.g. the dropping of a bomb or the firing of a weapon. As such, since there’s a distinction between ownership and a particular use of ownership, one naturally argues that ownership itself cannot be outlawed merely because a large number of typical uses involve aggression. But the use of actual force is not what is relevant. What is relevant to this argument is what is actually a threat. And the mere ownership of a nuclear weapon by various, random individuals would certainly be considered a threat by many.

This brings us to point #2 – what is a threat? It seems odd to define this subjectively, either by the individual(s) feeling threatened or the individual(s) doing what is considered threatening by others. The former seems strange because individuals often feel threatened by things that are not actually threatening. And if we were to accept this as a principled way of defining a threat, at its most absurd, we’d have to listen to insane and paranoid individuals calling others threatening for doing nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, there are some cases in which we’d accept the subjective perception of the individual(s) feeling threatened even if they were wrong. For example, Walter Block points out:

Suppose A comes rushing at B carrying a knife in the up-thrust position, while yelling ‘Kill!’ in a blood-curdling manner, whereupon B draws his pistol and shoots A dead. Later, it turns out that A was merely an actor, practicing for a part, and that the knife was made of rubber, as are most stage props of that sort. Is B guilty of murder? Not a bit of it. Rather, B would properly be judged to have done no more than exercise his right of self-defense. Even the reasonable man would have so concluded. (pp. 294-295)

In this example, if we were to follow the subjective desire of the “attacker” A, we’d consider B a murderer. But even in such a scenario we do not.

On top of this, what is and isn’t considered a threat is subject to continuum problems. For example, if A shakes his fist and shouts at B when he is only a few feet away, this could be reasonably considered a threat, and if B punched or attacked A first, it would be reasonable to consider B acting in defense and not an aggressor. However, if this occurred while A was a few hundred feet or a few miles away, etc. the opposite would hold true. This suggests that there is some point in between where A turns from an innocent individual into an aggressor and vice versa for B. However, any point picked seems arbitrary. Let’s say we chose 30 feet as our dividing point. Why not 1 foot more or 1 foot less?

The answer to both these problems is to use what’s known as the reasonable man standard. How would a “reasonable person” in a given society act under such circumstances? In practice, this would likely be determined by a jury of some number of disinterested individuals making a judgment on the case. The reasonable person would likely side with B in our first scenario: after all, how is he supposed to know that A is not “really” threatening him as he runs toward him with knife in hand. In our other scenario, the reasonable man would side with B if A was shaking his fist at him at a very close distance. At some further distance, the decision would become murky, but eventually it would fall to the opposite side.

How would the reasonable man standard apply to the case of nuclear weapons then? It is plausible to think that most people in a society would consider the mere possession of nuclear weapons by random individuals as a threat. For one, an analogy can be drawn between A shaking his fist under B’s nose from a proximate distance. After all, a nuclear weapon constantly poses a danger to those in its vicinity if it were to go off. And like in the other scenario, where A runs toward B with knife in hand, even if A does not intend to harm B does not necessarily mean the reasonable person wouldn’t side with B using force against A.

All of this is conjecture, of course, but that’s the point. There is no clear connection between the non-aggression principle and legal ownership of nuclear weapons, because nuclear weapons  fall, at the very least, on the murky area of the continuum of threatening behavior.

It’s Not a Lack of Seriousness That Disqualifies Trump – It’s a Lack of Moral Character and Judgment

I posted the following on Facebook two nights ago:

Trump’s statement during the debate tonight that we should intentionally kill the families of terrorists was one of the most immoral things I’ve ever heard a politician say. Just imagine for a second, that your sibling or one of your offspring happened to be a terrorist – does that at all justify killing you or your other innocent family members? Of course not. We don’t purposefully kill parents, or grandparents, or brothers, or sisters, or children, simply because they had the misfortune of being related to someone guilty of a crime.

Trump’s response in the debate centered around the family members knowing something was up in certain terrorist incidents, the fact of which I haven’t confirmed. But even if it was true in one or some cases does not mean it will be true in every case (and thus justify a forward policy of killing the families of terrorists). Some relatives of known ISIS members oppose them so much that they even wish they would die; if there exist family members like this, we can surely expect there to exist family members that would report on their relative if they knew what was happening. Now, even if it was true that family members thought there was a plot and didn’t say anything, it’s still irrelevant. Not speaking out about the dangers of your relatives is not the same thing as actively participating in terrorist crimes, and the former certainly does not justify death. On top of that, why not extend this reasoning to all the friends of the San Bernardino shooters who didn’t report their radical statements on social media? Should we just kill them too?

Trump’s second defense had to do with efficacy: terrorists might not care about their own lives, but they do care about their family’s lives. This is not entirely true, as some terrorists have threatened their own families. However, even it it was true, it is still a despicable way to bring about justice. It shows we’re willing to give up our values when we’re fearful and stoop to the levels of barbarism that the terrorists themselves exhibit when they purposefully kill innocents all over the world.

Sometimes, certain consequences of a belief system are so clearly absurd and depraved that they should invalidate that belief system. Likewise, sometimes certain statements are so clearly absurd and depraved that they should invalidate the person making those statements as someone we put our trust into. This is because it shows a lack of judgment and moral character. If you’re a Trump supporter, ask yourself “is this something I really agree with?” And if not, does it not frighten you about a potential president’s lack of judgment?

The Reductio Ad Absurdum of Libertarianism: Child Abandonment

As I’ve stated before on this blog, libertarianism (in its Rothbardian form) is a political philosophy with the non-aggression principle (NAP) as its foundation, stating that individuals may not aggress against or threaten aggression against other individuals and their justly attained property. Libertarians strictly deal with political questions such as when violence can be justly used and what sort of rights exist, but moral questions beyond that are set aside.

As such, libertarianism is a system of “negative (legal) obligations,” meaning that while it states you may not do X, and that violence may justly be used against you if you do in fact do X, there are no “positive (legal) obligations,” obligations of the form that you must do Y, and violence may justly be used against you if you do not do Y.

This inevitably creates substantial problems for libertarians, since most of us think there are at least some situations in which there are positive obligations of such degree or kind that violence can justly be used – either to make a person do something or punish him for not doing it. For example, wouldn’t a law obligating parents to feed their children be just? And if a child was starved to death through parental negligence, wouldn’t it be justified to use violence against the parent by throwing them in jail for murder? Common sense may say so, but libertarianism says otherwise. In a society with no positive legal obligations, parents could let their children starve to death. It’s true that parents could not directly attack or harm their children, but it seems parents could indirectly harm them by leaving them on their own.

Rothbard, describing the implications of the NAP, states:

Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. (The Ethics of Liberty, p. 100)

The problem with this is that it is so obviously the case that a parent starving his child is murder, and that laws against it and violence used to prohibit or punish it are just. Yet if a parent is thrown into jail for starving his child to death, the main complaint of the Rothbardian will not concern the clear and atrocious murder, but instead be about the (perfectly reasonable) fact that the parent was thrown in jail. And this is manifestly absurd.

Walter Block meanwhile has a slightly different view of what the NAP implies for the rights of children. In a paper discussing child abandonment, he makes the argument that the very process of homesteading (one of the ways people can come to own things justly, according to libertarians) carries with it certain implications because of its purpose in bringing previously unowned things into ownership. For example, “forestalling,” meaning to homestead a certain area of land, say, in the shape of a donut, and in the process make other land, on the inside, unownable (by refusing people through your own property), contravenes the entire point of homesteading, and is therefore illegitimate on libertarian grounds. Analogous would be the situation of a parent who, through the ownership of their house, forestalls the ownership of a child by not letting people through while the parent has given up ownership and decided to no longer feed it. In addition, to be logically consistent in giving up ownership of something, a person must enable others to homestead that object by making known the fact it is now unowned. Otherwise, as in the donut scenario, the process of homesteading is contravened. Therefore, the parent who gives up ownership of their child must both make it known they have given up ownership and allow anyone who wishes to homestead the child to do so. Anything else would be contrary to libertarian principles, according to Block.

While I do have some objections to this argument, what’s more important to note is that even according to Block, the problem is not fully solved. He states:

Would it ever be possible, under libertarian law, for a baby to be abandoned by its parents, for there to be no other adult willing to care and feed it, and the baby be relegated to death? Yes. However, this could occur only under the condition where the entire world in effect was notified of this homesteading opportunity, no roadblocks were placed against new adoptive parents taking over, but not a single solitary adult stepped forward to take on this responsibility. Since there are no positive obligations in the libertarian lexicon, it is logically possible for such a sad state of events to take place.

Giving up on demonstrating the conformity of libertarianism with our moral intuitions, Block is forced instead to argue that the chances of such an event happening is very low. However, while the terrible occurrence might be less likely to happen in a country such as the United States, it is far more plausible in third world nations where many people are in dire poverty. And it’s just not true that this could only occur without contradiction to libertarianism in situations where individuals were unwilling to take ownership of the baby. It could also occur if information could not spread very far or quickly enough.

For example, say a family of two parents and their one year old child somehow end up stranded on an island. The parents, not out of the lack of food or shelter or any other good reason, arbitrarily decide to stop feeding their child. There is no one in sight to yell for, and they make no attempt to inhibit someone from reaching their baby. Weeks later, the parents are discovered, but it’s too late for the child, who is found dead. According to Walter Block, it’s unjust for the saviors of the parents to throw them in a prison cell for their misdeeds.

It’s great that Block does attempt to make the libertarian philosophy more palatable by narrowing down the absurdity. Unfortunately, whether this attempt is successful or not does not matter. Even if it is successful, it simply is not enough: the leftovers are still unreasonable. Therefore, the libertarian principle is not universal.

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Great! You Can Empathize with Homosexuals. Can You Empathize with Christians, Too?

I considered not making this post since I got to writing about the issue so late, but the topic continues to be brought up in the media with the occasional new case here and there or the conclusion to an old one. This is not an actual defense for the behavior or beliefs of Christians (I am not arguing for the truth of their beliefs), but rather an attempt to relate to them and realize their behavior is not as inane as many make it out to be.

The recent controversy over religious freedom laws in Indiana left many Americans shocked and outraged by the continued discrimination against homosexuals. I was shocked as well, but for quite a different reason: I found the reaction by LGBT supporters to be overblown, excessively belligerent, and in some cases, downright harmful.

Shortly after Indiana’s law had made national headlines, a reporter visited a pizzeria owned by a Christian family in the state. The couple was asked whether they would cater a gay wedding, to which they answered no, since it would go against their religious values. As the two later clarified, they didn’t mind serving homosexuals generally; the issue was serving them if it meant participating in their marriage. The Internet’s “justice” vigilantes were quick and furious to jump on the case (how dare these bigots not sell pizza to someone!?). Masses of individuals swarmed the company’s yelp page with negative reviews, leaving it in ruins. The owners simultaneously received nasty e-mails and letters, some including death threats. To top it off, someone managed to grab the company’s name as a URL, listing dick pizzas on the menu and creating false quotes by the owner in order to harass the company.

All of this. Because of what? Let’s take a more detailed look at the belief the owners verbalized and bring some clarity to their statements. The owners stated they would not cater a gay wedding, but they had no problem serving gays on normal occasions. Immediately we can see from this distinction that the Christian owners are not discriminating against people but against actions of people. They don’t want to directly assist in what they consider to be immoral actions. For an analogy, consider you own a shop that sells sharp knives, and a person comes in saying he wants to murder someone, requesting the best knife for the job (What!? You’re comparing gay sex to murder?? Yes, on very limited grounds, so stick around so you understand my reasons for the comparison). You would be completely justified in such a situation not to sell any of your knives, because you wouldn’t want to directly assist in the immoral activity of attempted murder. This is how Christians view sexual acts and marriage between same-sex couples: as sinful behavior. Clearly, the degree is vastly different for those that believe it(it’s actually annoying I have to point that out, but too many people do not make the distinction between degree and principle and recklessly dismiss analogies just for a difference in degree), but just as most people consider murder immoral, Christians consider the latter acts wrong. As such, they do not want to directly assist in those behaviors.

Now that we have a proper analogy, we can easily dismiss some of the poor ones many have been making. For example, in a separate case in Georgia, a Christian flower-shop owner who said she would not sell flowers for a gay wedding was asked whether she would serve an adulterer, since the Bible also speaks about how such behavior is sinful. When she answered in the affirmative, she was instantly accused of hypocrisy. However, the question in this case does not properly mirror that regarding gay weddings. The relevant question would instead be “would you sell to someone who you knew was cheating on his wife and purchasing the flowers for a mistress?” Again, Christians are not choosing to discriminate against anyone who is a sinner (hilariously enough, according to their beliefs, that would mean they could not sell to literally anyone, a reductio that should make people who believe Christians hold this view pause and rethink that), they are choosing to discriminate against people in cases where the seller would be directly assisting in behavior they believe to be immoral. Another poor analogy people like to make is that of discrimination against African Americans in the south in the post-civil war era. The problem with this is the same (not gays in general, but gays in the immediate process of certain actions).

So people are sending death threats and publicly harassing others over a relatable, albeit not agreed upon, belief system, that when put into action, leads to a gay couple temporarily not getting a cake, or flowers, or pizza, etc. for their wedding. Homosexuals aren’t starving to death, they aren’t being physically harmed, and in fact, the direct consequence of not getting [insert item here] is easily handled by walking across the street to some non-Christian establishment where the owners will have no problem selling the item. The worst consequence seems to be that some individuals are offended. Yet people think it’s completely proportionate to put someone’s livelihood (the business could have been seriously damaged) under threat when the owners also have a family and employees depending on them.

If you still aren’t with me, consider some opposing beliefs that people hold where similar outrage never occurs. Let’s take Obamacare for example. If you believe Obamacare is bad for the country, you might believe that it will lead to worse health care outcomes, longer wait periods, and even death for some. Alternatively, if you believe the opposite, that Obamacare is good for the country, you might believe that the lack of it (or the lack of single payer, etc.) will lead to worse health care outcomes and again, even death. Yet, regardless of which belief you hold, have you ever considered threatening someone who disagreed with you on this issue? Did you ever consider publicly harassing them or trying to destroy their reputation? The consequences are clearly, undeniably far worse in this disagreement. For other examples, think of the Iraq war, or any war. Even if outrageous reactions move a step up here compared to Obamacare, they rarely get to the same point as that that occurred with the Indiana pizzeria. My purpose is of course, not to argue that people should be so outraged in these circumstances as well, but rather that they are correct in not going off the edge. These can be confusing and complicated issues, and there are millions of arguments in favor and against them. Rather, people should look at the issue of Christian discrimination in the market against homosexual marriage and properly place it on the spectrum of outrage where it makes sense: very low.

EDIT: Made a misstatement; changed it so it wouldn’t be a distraction.

Automatic Charges After Free Trials: An Immoral Policy?

Last year in August, I signed up for a Student Prime membership with Amazon. There was a free trial for 6 months, after which I would be charged a yearly fee of $60.00.

I unfortunately cannot remember whether I was aware of the payment scheme (the $60 charge part) at the time. I was certainly aware of the free trial (that’s why I signed up for it!) but I don’t think I knew that after 6 months, I would be automatically charged. It’s possible Amazon made the deal clear as day, and it’s possible that it was in small font or not easily noticeable. But the point I will be making here is that, regardless of which was the case, the company policy is an immoral one.

What I think it boils down to is that a company (by the way, although I used Amazon as an example here, I think they handled my situation extremely well, giving me a refund without any issues. This is not a hate piece directed toward them, but a discussion of the policy), in having such a policy, takes advantage of its customers. There is going to be a group of people that either are unaware of the payment scheme at the time, or are aware at the time but forget to cancel the program after 6 months.While I (being in the first camp) was fortunate enough to have found out about the $60.00 charge, and motivated enough to act on it and ask for a refund, that is not the case for everyone. Some people will not notice the charge because they are not careful enough with their finances. Others who notice the charge may not ask for a refund, instead thinking they’ve made a mistake that’s too late to fix. As such, companies with this policy are taking advantage of customers who don’t really want to pay for the product.

One might argue that it’s these people’s own fault that they are being taken advantage of. I would certainly agree, but that doesn’t make the company’s choice to enact this policy a morally acceptable one. If someone leaves their door unlocked, it is not acceptable to go into their house and take their possessions. If a woman is out at night dressed meagerly in a known dangerous part of town, it does not make it okay to rape her. Likewise, just because someone does not pay enough attention to their finances, it does not make it fine for a company to take advantage of that and surreptitiously take money from them.

Another argument might run: as long as a person agreed or signed a contract with the company, such a policy is okay. But even this isn’t true. For one, there can be issues with the fine print: few customers have the time or energy to read entire terms of agreements. Secondly (since the first may not be applicable to this policy), taking advantage of a person just because they have agreed to something is not necessarily right either. If someone agrees to purchase an addictive substance from you for their consumption use, it is not necessarily moral to give it to them and then profit from their situation.

What I think companies with free trials should do instead is send an e-mail near the end of the trial period to allow the customer to decide whether he or she wants to continue the service and start paying for it. An explicit approval or disapproval at that time takes care of the problem, and it does so in an easy way: a simple click of a button.

What do you think about this? Am I missing some clear advantages of the current system that benefit customers considerably? Or is this a net-bad policy that companies need to get rid of?

If You Could Go Back in Time, Would You Kill Hitler?

Nope – I wouldn’t and here’s why:

  1. I’m selfish. Going back in time and changing something means I might have an impact on people’s decisions – even my own parents. Maybe they won’t meet. Maybe they’ll meet and not get married. Maybe they’ll meet, get married, but choose to have babies at a different time. If any of these happen, I won’t be born.
  2. Using the same logic, millions, perhaps even billions of people that now exist might not exist in a world where I kill Hitler. (I don’t find this hard to believe since WWII and the Holocaust were such world-changing events.) If this is true, isn’t this, in essence, a mass murder of millions of people? Sure, in a way, you’re “making up for it” by leading to the creation of a million new people (hopefully, at least), but I don’t think that really makes it right.

My usual answer to these sort of questions is that if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t go back in time. And for this question, I’m sticking to that. Because despite the size of the calamity you want to stop, your impact will always be even greater.

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Feser on Rothbard: Children and Rights

A few months back, I ventured onto a post by Edward Feser criticizing Rothbard as being a philosopher “incapable of giving a philosophically interesting argument for his claims.”

Feser states:

In the revised edition of For a New Liberty, the argument begins as follows:

“Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation. Consider, too, the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are then only two alternatives: either (1) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or (2) everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else. The first alternative implies that while Class A deserves the rights of being human, Class B is in reality subhuman and therefore deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, the first alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. Moreover, as we shall see, allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange.” (pp. 28-29)

Here are the [problems] that occur to me:

1. Even if it were true that “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish” and that “the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation,” it just doesn’t follow that anyone has a right to self-ownership.

Furthermore, why should we grant in the first place that “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish”? Children survive and flourish very well without choosing most of their means and ends.

The following is in no sense a reply to Feser, but just some thoughts generated while thinking about the subject of children. I have not come to a conclusion myself nor read any of the libertarian literature on this topic, but hopefully at some point I will.

The essence of a human being is rationality: having intellect and will.

(Assuming an A-T metaphysics) The intellect’s final cause is to determine what is good for a man. The will’s final cause is to choose what is good for man.

The way I think about this is that an individual cannot use his will unless he is free. The final cause of the will – to choose what is good for oneself is hampered unless man is allowed to choose means he finds suitable for his chosen ends. This implies a right from the initiation of force of another.

Feser’s example of children brings up interesting thoughts though. The child in such a situation isn’t choosing the right choice; his parents are making it for him. If the parents are simply recommending a choice of action to him, then this is a different situation. In the first, he is not allowed to use his will (if he has it). In the second, he is allowed to exercise his will.

Maybe Feser would argue that barring children from making certain decisions – such as a 6 year old leaving the house at 10:00 at night is obviously morally good for it. It could be seen as an absurdity if Rothbard’s argument for rights does not allow a parent to make such a decision for his child.

Another issue though, is the question of consent. At what age or point is a child truly rational? One could argue a child of 6 years of age is incapable of rationally making choices for himself. As such, a parent deciding something for his child could be much like a individual acting upon a squirrel. While the action of the parent or individual might be moral, the actions a child or squirrel take are amoral, because one is not yet capable of using his will and the other does not have a will to exert.

One issue that troubles me in claiming children cannot consent is where we draw the line. At what age or time can they consent? I don’t think the absence of a fine line delegitimizes any talk of children not having consent, but it does make it harder to think about.

Again, just some thoughts. If anyone else has thoughts on any of what I’ve mentioned, feel free to share.

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One Question to See If You Should Read an Anti-Libertarian Article

One question to see if you should read an anti-libertarian article:

Ctrl F ‘Rothbard’. Does it appear anywhere? If it does, read the article. If it doesn’t, don’t read the article.

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