Perhaps the best argument against utilitarian and self-ownership defenses of libertarianism is this:

Utilitarianism is too consequence-sensitive and self-ownership is too consequence-insensitive.

It’s a simple criticism. Utilitarianism is well-known for being too insensitive to matters besides utility, such as the separateness of persons (as Rawls made famous in TJ). Utilitarianism provides an unattractive account of our reasons for action, as all reasons for action ultimately rest on the promotion of utility. The same goes for consequentialism, as all reasons for action ultimately rest on the promotion of whatever we decide are salutary consequences. But our reasons for action simply do not all depend on what promotes good consequences. To give two common cases, we often have reason to keep our promises even if it makes us worse off. Further, we usually have reason to respect rights even if we sacrifice utility in the process.

But the self-ownership principle overcompensates for the deficiencies of utilitarianism. As BHL-ers well know, the self-ownership thesis coupled with right-libertarian principles of acquisition, transfer and rectification can leave people out in the cold and fail to provide for the least-advantaged. While Cohen surely exaggerates, he was not entirely wrong when he said of Nozick’s view that “there is no more justice in a millionaire’s giving a five dollar bill to a starving child than in his using it to light his cigar while the child dies in front of him.” (Cohen, SFE, p.31, ft.28.)

While Nozick’s proviso on acquisition (ASU, 178) bars acquisitions that make others substantially worse off, we can still see Cohen’s point in the abstract: justice requires not letting people suffer in easily avoidable ways. We may be self-owners but it is hard to see why that fact is so weighty that it cannot be overridden by the easily met needs of the least well-off.

Of course, there is a distinction between the self-ownership thesis and the enormous priority typically ascribed to it. One might demote the weight of the self-ownership thesis. But for the self-ownership theorist, this demotion would destroy the thesis. For true moral ownership cannot be so easily overridden.

People try to amend both approaches to avoid these drawbacks. Utilitarians sometimes put rights into utility functions, for instance. And left-libertarians conjoin self-ownership with a principle of equal resource ownership, which helps to avoid the untoward consequences of self-ownership.

I find such attempts ad hoc. Instead of trying to repair these principles, I think we should look for an alternative contractualist view on which state coercion is permitted only when persons cannot reasonably reject the rules or principles on which the coercion is based. Reasonable rejectability is a somewhat vexed standard, but reasons to reject (or accept) will include both teleological reasons beloved by consequentialists and deontological reasons beloved by self-ownership theorists.

The promise of contractualism is avoiding the Scylla of consequence over-sensitivity and the Charybdis of consequence-insensitivity in an intuitively compelling principle.

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  • Aeon Skoble

    There’s another approach you’re overlooking, which avoids the pitfalls you note and has many other virtues.  Grounding a defense of liberty in a neo-Aristotelian conception of human flourishing works much better than you’re giving it credit for. http://www.amazon.com/Norms-Liberty-Perfectionist-Non-Perfectionist-Politics/dp/0271027010/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328101215&sr=1-1&tag=bleedheartlib-20

    • Kevin Vallier

      I haven’t given it *any* credit yet, as I stated in my first post. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

    ” … justice requires not letting people suffer in easily avoidable ways. We may be self-owners but it is hard to see why that fact is so weighty that it cannot be overridden by the easily met needs of the least well-off.”

    To me, this sentence represents Milton Friedman’s utilitarianism in the sense that, where we so-called “self-owners” do not understand money and taxes to the extent necessary to claim the property right in our labor, or are not sufficiently motivated to make the claim, allow the monetary system and negative income tax to ignore our potential right and “easily [meet the] needs of the least well-off.”

    For example, inventors and authors create new works everyday without making the effort to obtain patent or copyright protection under the Intellectual Property Clause (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8), but this doesn’t mean we should prevent the public from enjoying the benefits of those unprotected “writings and discoveries” anyway. On the other hand, if I make a valid claim to my intellectual property rights, and thereby secure a temporary monopoly on my work, I should not be vilified as having withheld something from the public.

    However, it’s a different story if the legal system is, consciously or unconsciously, suppressing claims to self ownership in order to maintain the status quo, or suppresses because of the fear that if a small percentage of libertarians are allowed to claim that their wages are not income, everyone will do it and the welfare state will unravel.

  • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

    “Utilitarianism is too consequence-sensitive and self-ownership is too consequence-insensitive.”

    This sounds exactly right to me. But it also sounds like merely a specific instance of a more general problem. The more general problem has to do not merely with the role of “conseqeuences” in moral evaluation (as capacious a category as that is). And it’s not just a matter of utilitarianism giving something too much weight and self-ownership giving it not enough. 

    The real problem, I take it, is that both utilitarianism and self-ownership views attempt to reduce all of morality (or, in the latter case, justice) to a single kind of moral consideration. Only one kind of thing, they hold, is relevant to determining the morality/justice of an action. Everything else is either only relevant insofar as it reduces to that one thing, or else it is not relevant at all. So, fairness, need, desert, virtue, reciprocity, and a host of other moral categories are summarily dismissed or relegated to a distant secondary importance. All for the sake of, what, theoretical elegance? 

    I’ve written before that utilitarianism seems to rest on a kind of obsessive fixation on a single feature of the moral universe, to the neglect of all others. But utilitarianism surely is not unique in this respect. Much the same holds for self-ownership views of justice.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Do you think that attempts to identify a foundational principle at least for determining whether certain laws are unjust is a worthwhile project given the general problem you raise? 

      You might respond to worries about reducing all of morality or politics to a single consideration by going pluralistic and trying to balance various considerations against one another through practical, intuitive judgment (as Dave sometimes seems to, though I think in cases of conflict he ultimately appeals to a consequentialist principle). 

      But I share with Rawls (and Jerry) the worry that such intuitive judgments do not wear their weights on their sleeves and as a result this intuitionistic approach cannot give us clear decision rules for resolving our disagreements with one another in ways we can all accept as fair and binding. That’s why I go for a more open-ended contractualist principle of justice like an idea of public justification because it is both open to many types of justificatory reasons (and so does not reduce all of morality to a single element) and because it can help us to order our competing claims.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Laufgraben/503212840 Mark Laufgraben

        “But I share with Rawls (and Jerry) the worry that such intuitive
        judgments do not wear their weights on their sleeves and as a result
        this intuitionistic approach cannot give us clear decision rules for
        resolving our disagreements with one another in ways we can all accept
        as fair and binding. That’s why I go for a more open-ended
        contractualist principle of justice like an idea of public justification
        because it is both open to many types of justificatory reasons (and so
        does not reduce all of morality to a single element) and because it can
        help us to order our competing claims.”

        I respectfully submit that your contractualism will not end up looking all that different from said intuitive judgements. It avoids the first issue (reducing morality to a single element) but I do not think it will actually help us order competing claims any more than Dave’s intuition does.

        • Kevin Vallier

          We shall see! Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Rawls all thought that the aim of political philosophy was to find such a principle. Perhaps they were mistaken, but I feel like I’m in good company!

          • Damien S.

            The failure of 2500+ years of philosophy to find a principle everyone can agree on might give one pause.  Sort of like fusion, power of the future for the past 60 years.

      • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

        (Dave = David Schmidtz and Jerry = Gerald Gaus, for those to whom this isn’t evident)

        Yes, I do think the attempt to identify foundational principles is worthwhile. 

        Suppose that there were an objective moral reality, and it was messy. We could sometimes intuit or discern by practical reason what the right balance of moral reasons was in some specific situation, but we could not devise an explicitly stated algorithm or decision procedure to pick it out reliably. In that case, I think, we would need to come up with such explicitly stated principles to serve as the basis of a *social* morality. Messy moral intuitions might be more “accurate” in some sense, but if they fail to provide a basis for fair and binding agreement then they are, as you suggest, failing to fill one of the functions that we want morality to fill.

        That said, I don’t think I’ve thought enough about the issue to say whether contractarianism is preferable to a kind of reigned-in pluralism as the basis for a social morality. I obviously find much attractive about Jerry’s view. But I don’t really have a settled view on the matter just yet.

      • Andrew Prock

        “Do you think that attempts to identify a foundational principle at least for determining whether certain laws are unjust is a worthwhile project given the general problem you raise?”

        Speaking for myself, it seems that such a search is not at all worthwhile.  Abstracting several levels out, axiomatic systems generally require several axioms in order to be of any use. Given that, it seems quite optimistic to pursue a system of political philosophy based on one foundational principle.   The real world is complicated, and those complications are at the very lest going to fracture your single foundational principle.  Based on what you’ve written so far, self-ownership is a perfect example of this.  Through what appears to be herculean contortions of reason, self-ownership is perverted into “self-ownership” which for some strange reason has a lot to say about owning things other than the self.

        There is no neat package upon which you can base your understanding of society.  Searching for such will always fail in one way or another.

        • Andrew Prock

          When it comes to forming a political philosophy, I tend to value rational, objective, and practical perspectives.  I’m also a sucker for optimality, openness, freedom, and access.  Unfortunately, libertarian doctrine flies in the face of much of those.

          From a practical perspective, I’m very much a “live and let live” sort of fellow who generally avoids of tilting at windmills.  When it comes to considering the worlds problems, the single most practical suggestion I have would be to discard idealism and ideology.

          From the perspective of taxes, I’m very much in favor of a single flat transaction tax of about .5% on all monetary transfers.  Not fully doable today, but probably in about 20-50 years.  I think David Brin mentioned something similar a while back, but it’s not a new idea.

          As for letting people allocate their own taxes, I would give all my taxes to myself.

          • Damien S.

            This misses the whole point of having taxes, especially in a democracy.  You might as well ask why we don’t run governments via voluntary donations, because there’s no difference between choosing to make a donation and choosing to not give taxes back to yourself if you could.

            “Sure, I support X.  But out of a country of 300 million, my $3000 in taxes isn’t going to make a big difference, while it’ll make a huge difference to me right now.”

            It’s externalities all over again.  “Sure, the Martians are invading.  But my being on the front lines won’t make much difference to victory, while if I stay hope I have a much better chance of not dying.”

            “Burning leaves may be bad for the air quality, but I’m just doing a little bit, and it’s cheaper than hauling them off somewhere.”

            Your idea might work if people are asked to allocate their taxes among democratically set options.  If you include anything, including give-to-self, you may as well not have taxes.

    • Damien S.

      I’ve argued here before that modern liberals juggle values like liberty, equality, and security, vs. just the liberty of libertarians.

      OTOH, I’m not sure consequentialism is a single kind of moral consideration.  It can end up that way if you specify a narrow utility function and get caught out by the unanticipated.  But if your “evaluation function” is to look at the consequences and like/dislike them, as an individual or society, you’re potentially capture every consideration, even (especially?) those not captured in formalism.  When utilitarian monstrosities like Omelas get rejected, that’s a consequentialist going “uhhh no something went wrong there”.

    • Dale Miller

      ” All for the sake of, what, theoretical elegance?”

      No, for the sake of determinacy, I think.

  • http://twitter.com/thrica Thrica

    “we often have reason to keep our promises even if it makes us worse off.”
    There’s a difference between utilitarianism as a political theory and as an ethical theory. Are we looking here at individuals maximizing utility for themselves or individuals maximizing utility for society?

    One of the things Libertarian Utilitarians (surely a portmanteau could be made of that) always harp on is self-interest (or utility) rightly understood. The “must” of keeping a promise is a future-oriented decision to invest 1) in you own trustworthiness as perceived by others, and 2) the good will of the other party. Often self-respect becomes an overriding factor too where the benefits of the first two aren’t immediately obvious, which is why custom often serves better than a constructed ethics.

    Maybe that’s what you mean by “have reason to keep”, but then we’d only be “worse off” in a strictly material sense. Anyway, I’ll be interested to see your future posts on contractualism, but I don’t want to see utilitarianism given a short shrift.

    • Damien S.

      It sounds like what he dismisses as ‘ad hoc’.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Kevin,

    What do you think about Erick Mack’s Self Ownership Proviso? Would that alleviate your concerns re self ownership.

    Daniel Shapiro

    • Kevin Vallier

      Its a complex question. Mack’s SOP does make the self-ownership thesis somewhat consequence-sensitive but I think no more so than Nozick’s proviso on net (and if I recall from the article, he recognizes that it is in some ways more restrictive than Nozick’s proviso). If so, I submit that common intuitions do not support Mack’s version of the SOP over alternative more consequence-sensitive principles.

  • Gordon Sollars

    Powerful arguments for liberty can be made from contractarian, Aristotelian,  and, yes, even utilitarian perspectives.   And that’s a good thing.  To use Charles Peirce’s metaphor, we want an argument that is a rope of many strands, not a chain that depends on a single link.  And, while I am quoting, the search for unassailable foundations, in moral philosophy, or anything else, is, as David Miller would say, a “sleeveless errand of unbelievable sadness and futility”.

    Perhaps you could clarify the relationship between a rejectability criterion (Scanlon?) and the “idea of public justification” you mention in your reply to Matt.  If you remain sensitive to “many types of justificatory reasons”, how does the criterion provide any definite result?

    By the way, are you familiar with the approaches to utilitarianism taken by Russell Hardin or John Broome?  To simply say “the promotion of utility” papers over a good deal.  E.g., Hardin’s utilitarian analysis  promising (Morality Within the Limits of Reason) is quite interesting.

  • Damien S.

    ” Utilitarians sometimes put rights into utility functions, for instance. And left-libertarians
    conjoin self-ownership with a principle of equal resource ownership,
    which helps to avoid the untoward consequences of self-ownership.

    I find such attempts ad hoc.”

    More ad hoc than the usual libertarian leap from true self-ownership (of one’s body) to arbitrary ownership of parts of the outside world?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wiebe/1440756026 Michael Wiebe

    the self-ownership thesis coupled with right-libertarian principles of acquisition, transfer and rectification can leave people out in the cold and fail to provide for the least-advantaged.

    Kevin, can you unpack this? That is, do you mean something like: “in a society where people act according to these principles, the least-advantaged will not be provided for”?

    • Kevin Vallier

      The critique is about what reasons for action the theories identify. The self-ownership thesis, if complied with, might lead to great consequences for the least-advantaged and may even virtually guarantee in empirical fact that they will be provided for. However, that would not make the self-ownership thesis consequence-sensitive in the right way. The self-ownership thesis seems to basically entail that *if* a society that complied with the self-ownership thesis systematically failed to secure the welfare of the poor, *then* no injustice would be done. But an adequate theory of justice should hold the converse, such that if a society systematically fails to secure the welfare of the poor, then it is unjust.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rod-Engelsman/822499328 Rod Engelsman

        I would go farther: Any system that consistently creates a poverty class is unjust.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wiebe/1440756026 Michael Wiebe

        What do you think of Roderick’s move to define justice as dealing with enforceable moral claims? On this view, failing to provide for the poor does not violate justice, but it would violate duties of benevolence. Also note that enforceable moral claims are not necessarily more morally serious than unenforceable claims.

  • Anonymous

     Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your posts, which are very helpful and interesting, as are the discussions they have provoked. I would like to dispute a couple of things you say.

    You say:

    ‘While Cohen surely exaggerates, he was not entirely wrong when he said
    of Nozick’s view that “there is no more justice in a millionaire’s
    giving a five dollar bill to a starving child than in his using it to
    light his cigar while the child dies in front of him.”’

    It seems to me that Cohen is quite wrong. If the millionare gives the cash to the starving kid, it is a matter of benevolence not of justice.  What we want to say is that there is more to right action than simply justice; but I think it only confuses things to describe everything we want as a matter of justice.

    You say:

    ‘I think we should look for an alternative contractualist
    view on which state coercion is permitted only when persons cannot
    reasonably reject the rules or principles on which the coercion is
    based.’

    I’m afraid I find this proposal preposterous. Even in natural science, the experts disagree; and they are reasonable in doing so because disagreement is what leads to new knowledge. Even in logic, supposedly the most certain of all sciences, the experts disagree on even the most fundamental principles: modus ponens, excluded middle, double negation – every significant principle of inference is disputed or denied by some logicians because they think that is the best way to resolve serious logical problems (hence. their rejection of these hallowed principles is eminently reasonable). If we cannot find principles that people ‘cannot
    reasonably reject’ even here, what hope is there of finding such principles in morals? This is only one reason why, it seems to me, contractualism is doomed.

    Best wishes,

    Danny

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=743482150 David Sobel

    Kevin,

    I very much agree with your critique of self-ownership views and actually am nearly finished with two papers trying to make something much like your point.

    Best,
    Dave

    • Kevin Vallier

      I read a draft of one of them and very much liked it! In fact, if and when you’re ready, I’m happy to discuss them on the blog.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=743482150 David Sobel

        I’m in if you would like to do this. Best for me if it could not happen for a week.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting post, thanks. However, when Cohen says this about Nozick’s views: “there is no more justice in a millionaire’s giving a five dollar bill to a starving child than in his using it to light his cigar while the child dies in front of him,” he is indeed ENTIRELY wrong, unless he equates “justice” with “things that we license the state to coercively enforce.” In other words, it is entirely consistent and coherent for us to say that the conduct that Cohen describes is a horrible injustice, but that the state should not use force to correct it. This position might be based on (i) if we grant the state this power, even more injustice will occur or (ii) coercion is itself a grave injustice. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=743482150 David Sobel

    That is a nice offer. Let me mull and expect to want to do this before long.

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  • Carol Nana

    LIBERTARIANISM AND UTILITARIANISM AGAINST THE TAXATION, WELL AS CAROL, I AM IN FAVOR OF LIBERTARIANISM… :-)

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