Libertarianism, Academic Philosophy

Speaking of Trolley Problems…

If I had one magic power, it would be to force every libertarian who talks about how simple and obvious the non-aggression principle is to read this. And then, if they’re still standing, this. And this.

I say “force,” not because I think that these are bad books. Both Thomson and Kamm are dazzlingly smart and talented philosophers, and these books show them at the height of their philosophical skill. It’s just that, at some level, the whole project strikes me as somewhat akin to arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Or, perhaps more precisely, like arguing that no matter how many angels happen to be on the head of some particular pin, we are not morally permitted to divert a trolley away from it and toward a pin upon which fewer angels are resting.

Seriously, though, it’s surprising to me how disengaged most libertarians seem to be from serious contemporary philosophical work on deontology. If you think that the distinction between inflicting harm and allowing harm to occur is seriously important, if you think that causing harm in self-defense is permissible while causing harm aggressively is not, if you are, in short, seriously committed to the idea of a rigorous deontological morality, then it really is incumbent upon you to look at these books to see where such a system leads you once you start to grapple with the hard problems in a thoroughgoing way.

And when you’ve done that, and you come running and screaming and begging for some good ol’ sensible Richard Epstein, I will be waiting for you.

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Matt, it’s more like a reading assignment than an essay. Maybe you could give us a paragraph about each of the four books you mention so that we can get some hint of what these really compelling but unstated arguments are without reading a cumulative total of probably more than 1000 pages?

    • Fair enough, I was probably making more of an inside joke than is appropriate for the forum, assuming a passing familiarity with the kind of thing that Kamm and Thomson are doing in a way that I probably shouldn’t have.

      My main point actually wasn’t that their arguments are compelling. They’re smart, and intricate, and persuasive in their way. But my main point was actually that the whole enterprise strikes me as a bit of a waste of intellectual horsepower. Lots of bizzarre hypotheticals used to pump intuitions (“would you be obligated to help someone far away if your arms were really, really long?”), with the expectation that those intuitions should then be used to guide our reasoning in other, more mundane cases. I think this is a bad way to go about thinking about morality, so in a sense I think that no matter how good Kamm and Thomson are at it, the end result is not terribly helpful. Impressive, in a way, but not helpful.

      • jodpur

        So don’t read them, then?

      • Sean II

        As a civilian safely on the outside of any academic in-jokes, I’m happy to agree with you. The trolley case is about as relevant to my moral life as trolleys are to my daily transportation.

        Frankly, what I want from morality is that it should keep me well clear of situations where any choice I make ends up getting someone killed. I want a moral theory that allows me to choose between right and wrong, not one that fearlessly explores the subtle differences between wrong and wronger. Of course that’s easy for me to say, since I have no need to publish, but merely to live.
        When I come across these dilemmas they seem every bit as silly as if I walked into a medical school to overhear the following:
        “Question: A patient comes into your office with bacterial meningitis. For some improbable reason I just made up, you have no antibiotics. Do you a) give the patient intravenous gasoline, b) suddenly kick him in the head, or c) murder the nurse and frame her for stealing the antibiotics?
        Answer: What’s wrong with you? That’s awful. Who gives a shit?”
        So I promise if the trolley problem ever comes up, I’ll flip the switch to kill Bob and then go turn myself in for murder, or at a minimum, operating public transit controls without a union card.

        • Joe J Grimm

          It seems to me that voters in a democracy partake in a trolley problem every election, since each candidate/party is likely to pursue policies that will result in deaths that would not have occurred had a different candidate/party won.

          In the US we even have a nice binary in most elections.

  • You didn’t mention this one:

    I read it only a couple of months back. It is a fantastic book, by far and away one of the best books I have read by a contemporary philosopher. It is a highly illuminating and insightful book. It can be heavy going because of all the varied cases she considers; but she makes repeated attempts to systematise. It is highly instructive (even though I disagree sharply with some of it). If you think you understand about rights, but you haven;t read that book, then think again. For the first time in a long time I actually learned something from a book by a contemporary philosopher.

    I’m sorry, Karl, I am not going to try to summarise it. But, as Gilbert Harman says, on the back cover, ‘This is where future work on rights must start.’ I think that is the only comment of Harman that I have ever agreed with!

    • Fernando Teson

      Entirely agreed.

  • Joseph R. Stromberg

    Whoever actually argued about angels on pins? If angels are, as Aquinas says, two-dimensional rational beings (each one its own species), they won’t be fitting ‘on’ a pin at all. So the answer, should they wish to sit there, is probably all or none.

    This is like the old canard in which F. Bacon supposedly said that Aristotle was utterly misleading in almost every respect, when Bacon really said that *recent translations* of Aristotle were utterly misleading, etc. (Marjorie Grene pointed this out and added the whole passage in Bacon’s Latin for doubters.)

    And, yes, the non-aggression hoodoo probably is more complicated. Barry Smith has said of Mises’s action axiom, that it is not necessarily wrong, but does amount (per Smith) to a conflation of about nine lesser axioms. (I’m willing to be agnostic on this one — that is, whether the nine axiomuncula together make Mises’ argument.)

  • Joseph R. Stromberg

    Also, will the Trolley-based welfare criterion justify taking money and handing it around so we can afford all these books at one go? Just saying.

  • Moorlock

    Have you considered an approach to the trolley problem that’s neither utilitarian nor deontological, but… existentialist?

  • What’s Richard Epstein got to do with it? I only ask because the first recommendation is not available on kindle, and the second is $48. I’ll do my best on the third when I get paid on Thursday.

    • Wheylous

      Don’t you get it? It’s a pay wall that allows him to make assertions without presenting evidence. When pressed for an argument, he resorts to “it’s a waste of intellectual power”. Seriously? I had hope for BHL, but it seems to be turning into more and more statist apologies.

  • Cal

    Nearly the entire project of “ethics” in academic philosophy, especially deontology, seems like “a waste of intellectual horsepower” to me. Been that way ever since I read Wittgenstein, Hayek, de Jasay, and skeptical contemporaries on metaethics like Richard Joyce. I very much agree that the better-written pieces in the field are “impressive” in a way, but not “helpful” and in the end carry something of a charlatan quality.

    I always understood “the non-aggression principle” put forward to be an explicitly simplified but still sensible general-rule-of-thumb for moral/legal practice in a more free society, not so much a philosophical-ethical theory.

  • If I had one magic power, it would be to force…

    This was implicit in many of your previous posts, but thanks for the clarity.

  • Anyone who prefers Richard Epstein to Judith Thomson should be tied to a trolley track.

    • Just tie me there with a bunch of other people, and put a sensible person at the switch.

    • Okay, I look up Judith Thomson and the first thing I see is her defense of abortion which seems terribly weak, outside of rape. Does she have better work or is this typical?

  • Fernando Teson

    Matt and Jessica: Guido Pincione has addressed the relevance of the Trolley Problem for libertarians in an excellent piece: “The Trolley Problem as a Problem for Libertarians” Utilitas 19 (4):407-429 (2007).

  • Fernando Teson

    For what’s worth, I disagree with the remark about the futility of the Trolley literature. It is especially useful for libertarians, preoccupied as they are with coercion.

  • Javier

    I like Thomson and Kamm and, like Jason Brennan, I don’t think there is a general problem with scifi thought experiments. Regardless, you don’t need to run to Epstein. There are plenty of other deontologists who don’t do moral theory the way that Thomson and Kamm do it. See, for instance, Jeff McMahan–philosophically sophisticated deontology that often uses real cases and applications (mostly related to war).