Category Archives: Philosophy
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.
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
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.
This post is inspired by Gene Callahan’s on scientific presuppositions. I did a bit of my own thinking, however, and started wondering “what would it even mean for someone to believe in both determinism and science?”
If the universe is deterministic, then all our actions are no different, other than perhaps in the degree of complexity, from those of atoms and molecules. This means that the scientist, too, is predetermined. He does not choose to do science, he simply does science. As such, if we want to hold the knowledge gained from science as truthful, we must say that the scientist is predetermined to do science correctly. He must both be predetermined to follow the scientific method and “think” he is following the scientific method. He must be predetermined to “pick” the correct conclusions rather than the incorrect ones.
But then what occurs is that the determinist is no longer merely saying the universe is deterministic: he’s actually proposing specific content for his determinism, namely, at least, that the scientist is predetermined to follow the scientific method and pick conclusions correctly. What reason we would have to expect this, I have no idea. It instead seems like something one would have to take up on faith.
Perhaps one would counter that the applications of technologies we eventually achieve through science clearly practically work, and that validates it. For example, the validation of certain scientific research on electricity could be shown through its application in functional electric vehicles. But if that’s the case, then couldn’t we also be predetermined to (falsely) think that there are practical applications of science? If one is going to propose something as inane as that we are predetermined to follow a particular method correctly to achieve true knowledge, then I don’t see how this other possibility is any more ridiculous.
Nope – I wouldn’t and here’s why:
- 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.
- 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.
I’m sure this has an alternative, “official” name, so if you know that, let me know (it might be a version of the association fallacy)! For now, I’m going to call it the time fallacy.
The time fallacy is typically used as a counterargument (made by person B) against an original claim (made by person A). Person A might make a claim of the form “X is good for us,” while the respondent would fallaciously reply “X did exist at time T. Therefore, person A wants to take us back to time T” (where other bad things occurred).
Often, after someone hears of anarchocapitalism, all sorts of objections on practical grounds are raised. How would the roads be built? How would private defense function? Wouldn’t warlords just take over?
The ironic feature of all these questions is that they are purely speculative. Meanwhile, more fundamental knowledge is on the side of the anarchist libertarian, who points out, e.g. in response to the second question, that not only is there nothing logically incoherent about private defense (you could just defend yourself or hire others, after all), but practically speaking, we have reason to expect private defense to be much more efficient.
Ex ante, two individuals that engage in a voluntary transaction both gain from the trade. Otherwise, they would not have engaged in the trade. So we know that private defense would satisfy the desires of consumers far more effectively than government, an institution completely separated from the satisfaction of preferences.
I find this analogous to the knowing vs. thinking (or believing) distinction. The more fundamental knowledge i.e. knowing, is what we can deduce from human action about voluntary transactions, e.g. that a private defense agency must satisfy the preferences of consumers or it would go out of business, and a more efficient competitor would take its place. The less fundamental knowledge, thinking, is the speculative objection, e.g. that an incentive exists known as the “free rider” incentive and such an incentive could possibly lead to worse defense service production on a free market (for a quick rebuttal, note that the free rider incentive is one of many competing incentives involved in human action. Another, for example, is the desire for social acceptance, and those who paid for a private defense agency could socially reject free riders). Of course, this distinction can be applied to a number of examples.
This is why so many libertarians who read Mises and Rothbard (especially the latter) on economics have no problem imagining a stateless society. If the state can’t manufacture and sell shoes as well as the market, why should we expect it to do better anywhere else? Praxeology, after all, makes no distinction between the content of means or ends, but only discusses the fact that man does have means and ends (and so a consistent application of the praxeological analysis to economics should lead one to taking the libertarian position on every issue when it comes to economic efficiency).
In fact, as I heard Tom Woods say recently, to him it’s so clear a stateless society could work (he did not say this last phrase, but I believe it was a hidden part of his argument; if he ever sees this and doesn’t think this is accurate, then I would take his word over mine), we should accept that as our initial premise and fully accept the non-aggression principle, and those in favor of a State must make their case why a stateless society cannot work. In other words, it should not be up to the libertarian to prove a stateless society could work.
But why should anyone accept scientism in the first place? Rosenberg gives a single brazen non sequitur in its defense. The predictive power, explanatory range, and technological successes of physics, he says, far outstrip those of other purported sources of knowledge. And this, he concludes, shows that what physics tells us is real is all that is real. But this is like arguing that since metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins in more places than any other method, metal detectors show that only coins exist.
I’ve considered this argument based on the explanatory power of science but never really had a good reply till now. Feser’s response is devastating and his analogy hits the nail on the head.
Science (as in the natural sciences) is certainly useful. That’s precisely why people use it! That doesn’t mean it’s useful for everything nor does it mean it’s the only method for gaining knowledge.
And as Gene Callahan points out, science has its own philosophical presuppositions:
The fact is that a [scientific] finding that “the brain and body function in a perfectly deterministic manner” would say nothing at all about free will. The world of science is an abstraction from the totality of experience, and, as such, does not speak of that totality, but only of its own, abstract world. But a statement such as “I have free will” is a statement about the totality of experience, and thus is not impacted at all by any conclusion from the world of science. In fact, to reach a scientific conclusion such as “the body is perfectly deterministic” assumes free will: one has concluded x only when one could have concluded y instead: one must choose a conclusion. But for it to have been possible to have chosen one course but for another to have been chosen is just what “having free will” means. Free will is assumed by scientific reasoning, and, as such, certainly can’t be disproven by it.
Only philosophy tells us about reality unabated.