Rights Theory, Libertarianism

Hungering and Thirsting After Righteousness: Eudaimonism and Modified Rothbardianism versus Public Reason

In “Starving for Virtue? Eudaimonism and Public Reason versus Rothbardianism,” Kevin V. continues to defend the compatibility of public-reason liberalism with eudaimonism. I continue to dissent.

Death Before Dishonour

Let’s start with my biggest gripe. Kevin quotes (or almost quotes – he changes my “eudaimonist” to “eudaemonist”) (no, that’s not my biggest gripe) my remark that “from a eudaimonist perspective … it is more in one’s self-interest to die justly than to live unjustly – better to suffer as a decent person than to survive as a predator.”

Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread

Kevin find this “troubling,” on the grounds that, as he reads it, it apparently implies that “if a Rothbardian society left a non-trivial number of people in a position where they could only regularly meet their basic needs by taking a small fraction of the holdings of the very richest members of society, the needy should choose to suffer because such great suffering is required by virtue.”

Here I feel as though the entire content of my initial post is being ignored. After all, the question of the likely regular results of a system of rights is part of what goes into the determination of that system’s legitimacy in the first place, since the content of justice is informed by benevolence and prudence. So whatever suffering the principles of justice demand is suffering that has already passed a consequentialist test. Kevin’s counterfactual, then, in effect asks us to forget the initial consequentialist test and impose a new one at this second stage, and to treat its failing the second test as being still quite as possible as if there had been no initial test. It’s as though Kevin really wants to argue with an orthodox Rothbardian instead of with me. Note the wording: “if a Rothbardian society ….” [emphasis added] But how on earth could that be the appropriate counterfactual?

My position is this: if a just society required people to starve, then they should choose to starve. I don’t think that should be controversial; it seems close to being a tautology. But the question of whether a Rothbardian society would require people to starve is relevant (not the sole relevant factor, but a weighty one) to determining whether, and to what extent, justice is Rothbardian.

I feel a bit as though I had said “The butler is the murderer, therefore he should be arrested,” and Kevin had replied, “You say the butler should be arrested; that commits you to saying that he should be arrested even if he’s not the murderer – how ‘troubling’!”

Yes, this is in effect my “double-counting” objection, to which Kevin replies by doubling down, or more precisely tripling down: “then I demand we triple-count,” he says. How this insistence that the deck be stacked in favour of his own position doesn’t count as “sectarian” I’m not sure.

In any case, adding more weight to the consequentialist side isn’t going to make that much difference. For even if we applied a solely consequentialist standard, leaving all deontic considerations out of account entirely, we’d still get – for the sorts of reasons Hume discusses in his “seditious bigot” passage – a fairly firm version of the NAP. That version would of course be less firm than the one I favour, which in turn is less firm than the one that a purely deontic approach with no admixture of consequentialist considerations would yield. Still, a purely consequentialist account and a purely deontological account are both going to generate versions of the NAP, and in effect all that’s left to the eudaimonist is to work out a reconciliation bill between the two.

Kevin writes: “Roderick expects us to reconceive the ordinary notion of a benefit so completely that the needy non-Rothbardian does not benefit from taking a small portion of a mega-rich person’s holdings.” But again, that’s not my claim. And given that I said explicitly in my initial post that the NAP in extreme circumstances can allow compensated taking rather than forbidding taking entirely, I don’t know why Kevin interprets me otherwise. I do not claim a) that the needy cannot benefit from taking without consent. What I do claim is that b) the needy cannot benefit from unjust taking without consent. When taking is unjust and when it’s not will depend on circumstances; sometimes there’s good news for the needy (you get to steal a loaf of bread) and sometimes there isn’t (you don’t get to kick the other guy out of the lifeboat).

As for Kevin’s reluctance to countenance the possibility of radical reconceptions of benefit, I think that possibility is always on the table once you accept eudaimonism. After all, a central theme running from Socrates through Plato and Aristotle to Cicero and the Stoics and Scholastics is that it is more in one’s self-interest to suffer injustice than to commit it; that’s the point of Gyges’ Ring, the Choice of Herakles, and all that. The more radical eudaimonists (e.g. the Stoics) held that suffering injustice is no harm at all; the more moderate eudaimonists (e.g. Aristotle) held only that it is a smaller harm than committing injustice. Soul of moderation that I am, I agree with Aristotle against the Stoics; but even the Aristotelean thesis is radically counterintuitive by common-sense standards. (It is nevertheless, I think, dialectically implied by common-sense standards.) A eudaimonism that abandoned the Aristotelean thesis would be a eudaimonism that abandoned the reciprocal determination of justice and prudence, which is to say, no eudaimonism at all. Those who can’t face the reconceiving-of-benefit heat need to decide whether they really want to be in the eudaimonist kitchen.

E Pluribus Unum

Kevin writes: “One of the most curious claims in Roderick’s post is the seeming denial of reasonable pluralism.” I find this one of the most curious claims in Kevin’s post. After all, the claim that Kevin makes for reasonable pluralism here is that “some rational and reasonable people have sufficient reason from their own point of view to reject the NAP.” [emphasis added] And the claim of mine that he takes to disagree with this is my denial that rejecting NAP is “ordinarily a purely reasonable or innocent mistake.” [emphasis added again] Just as Kevin’s “some” grants the existence of culpable dissent, so my “ordinarily” grants the existence of non-culpable dissent. So plainly Kevin and I agree that the rejection of NAP is not always culpable. We disagree about how likely it is to be culpable in practice, but that’s another question. Why Kevin later says that “Roderick implausibly denies” that “one can reasonably reject the NAP,” having already quoted the passage that shows I don’t deny this, I cannot imagine.

I think we also disagree about what it is for something to be a vice. To clarify: I do not think a vice always has to be culpable. If one has a settled disposition to act in accordance with the wrong principles of justice, then one suffers from the vice of injustice, even if one does so innocently. The same point applies to other virtues; people raised in either an unusually macho or an unusually timid cultural milieu may non-culpably form mistaken notions of what courage requires, but their lack of culpability does not transform their rash or cowardly states of character into the virtue of courage. (Though I also think lack of culpability is less common here than Kevin supposes.)

I’m not sure why Kevin gives such weight to the fact that “many smart, thoughtful and careful people in the world” reject NAP. Throughout most of history, many smart, thoughtful and careful people in the world have likewise accepted slavery, male supremacy, and the like. I suspect our descendants will look back at our generation with something like the same mixed emotions that we have when we look back at Aristotle, Cicero, and Jefferson, brilliant and conscientious people who behaved in ways that would today put them on a par with Ariel Castro. (I think their context makes them less culpable than Castro – but decidedly culpable all the same.) Most smart, thoughtful, and careful people nowadays seem to view with complacency the practice of, e.g., throwing people into rape rooms for using the wrong herb; I don’t think this complacency is innocent, but even if it were, it’s seriously screwed up and undeserving of respect.

I also don’t quite know what it could mean – especially in a eudaimonist context, where the mean determines the optimum, and departures therefrom are vicious – to say that we could “have sufficient reason to accept” principles that we recognise as being “less than fully just.” If a principle is less than fully just, then it is unjust. The only sense I can make of this idea is if justice were being thought of not as a matter of deontic side-constraints but instead as a goal to be maximised, so you try to get as much of it as you can, and sometimes you fall short. But Kevin rejects this interpretation, leaving me guessing as to what he has in mind instead.

Kevin writes: “contra Roderick, I do think we have a sufficiently clear grasp of the nature of justice and legitimacy, and the common good despite our plural views about the good,” and thus “do not need to secure rational consensus on the nature of the good life to determine the proper principles of justice” – and “thank goodness for that,” since were this not so, we would have “no way to cooperate on moral terms without first agreeing on … the right conception of the good.”

Kevin here seems to me to be blurring the lines between what I take to be three importantly different questions:

  • a) How much agreement on the nature of the good is required in order to determine the content of justice with full specificity?
  • b) How much agreement on the nature of the good is required in order to determine the content of justice in broad outline?
  • c) How much agreement on the nature of the good is required in order to establish terms of cooperation that will in practice be broadly just?

I think the amount of agreement required for (a) is much higher than for (b), which in turn is much higher than for (c). Hence I want to resist what I take to be Kevin’s suggestion that if we set the bar high for (a), we have to set it equally high for (b) and (c) as well.

Sauce for the Goose

I don’t quite follow Kevin’s response to my Libby/Colin case. Kevin says that the NAP is “way more restrictive than a PJP,” since all that a PJP rules out is “when either side insists on imposing her favorite sectarian rule on others who have sufficient reason to reject it.” This supposedly mild restriction, if interpreted literally, seems to me to be an annihilating blow to any coherent resolution of the conflict.

sauce for the goose

Justice is about the legitimate use of force. People who disagree about justice thereby disagree about when it’s legitimate to use force. If disagreements about justice can be reasonable, then ipso facto people can reasonably use force against other people who reasonably disagree with them – in which case, farewell to PJP. On the other hand, if we insist on PJP, and so insist that it’s unreasonable to use force against those who reasonably disagree, we are thereby insisting that it’s unreasonable for the disagreeing parties to act on their conceptions of justice – which means in turn that we have abandoned the idea that the disagreement is reasonable (since we can hardly say that it is reasonable to believe that doing X is justified, but unreasonable to do X). Far from being a sensible response to reasonable pluralism, PJP is inconsistent with reasonable pluralism about justice.

Now one way to reply to this objection is to insist that reasonable pluralism applies only to disagreements about the good, not to disagreements about justice. But this would surely be special pleading; all the reasons for granting reasonable disagreements about the good apply just as much to justice (especially, but not only, if we accept reciprocal determination). And if we grant that there are reasonable disagreements about justice, we have thereby granted what the public-reason approach is at pains to deny. Reasonable disagreements about justice → reasonable disagreements about rights-claims → reasonable disagreements about which claims are legitimately enforceable → reasonableness of the belief that one may legitimately enforce one’s claims against those who reasonably reject them → reasonableness of enforcing one’s claims against those who reasonably reject them. One can embrace reasonable pluralism or PJP, but not both.

Public Reason As Victim Disarmament

Kevin thinks that his acknowledgment of a right to self-defense against innocent threats doesn’t imply, as I take it to imply, that it’s “sometimes okay to coerce people on the basis of norms they reasonably and innocently reject.” The reason, he says, is that “rights to bodily integrity” are easy to justify. I’m baffled by this response. The whole point at issue is the content of the right to bodily integrity. After all, the enforcement of rights – including property claims (of any sort, Rothbardian or Rawlsian or Gausian or whatever) – generally involves impinging on bodily integrity; so not all impinging on bodily integrity is prohibited. And if the threat is innocent, then evidently the aggressor and the defender do not agree as to whether this is one of the prohibited cases.

One could, of course, have a rule saying that one is never allowed to attack someone’s bodily integrity except in response to aggression specifically against bodily integrity. Such a rule would avoid my objection. But the rule is not a promising one. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Imagine a world in which people freely expropriate other people’s possessions; nobody initiates force directly against another person’s body, but subject to that constraint, people regularly grab any external resource they can get their hands on, regardless of who has made or been using the resource. Any conception of aggression according to which the world so described is free of aggression is not a plausible one.

And if one does grant the legitimacy of using force against others’ bodies in defense of property-claims – of placing a thief under arrest, for example – then Kevin’s appeal to the special character of bodily integrity seems like a non sequitur. Either public reason allows the use of bodily force against innocent transgressors of property claims, or it doesn’t. If it does, then the public-reason objection to Rothbardian property claims fails. If it doesn’t, then it demands that the correct go defenseless against the mistaken – and makes any property regime difficult to enforce.

I would go further, of course, and say that the fact that enforcement of property claims must sometimes impinge on bodily integrity implies that we cannot justify any property claims at all unless we acknowledge such claims as being extensions of the right to bodily integrity – in which case their stringency will be correspondingly enhanced.

Kevin writes: “We cannot live in moral relations with absolutely everyone ever. But at least public reason liberals try.” But that is precisely what I deny. If public reason liberals are prepared to violate the NAP – prepared, e.g., to treat other people’s labour (or the products of that labour, which I think Nozick was right to treat as being on a par) as being at their disposal – then living in moral relations with other people is exactly what’s being abandoned.

Quick Postscript on Matt’s and Jason’s Latest; or, Toontown’s Not Bad, It’s Just Drawn that Way

Matt’s discussion leaves it unclear (at least to me) whether or not he distinguishes between two different theses: a) that the NAP should be applied in a nuanced, context-sensitive, consequence-sensitive way; and b) that the NAP should be, if not rejected, then at least downgraded to a mere defeasible presumption or rule of thumb.

Certainly Bill Bradford did not distinguish them, as Matt’s quotation from “Ethan O. Waters” illustrates. But for reasons I’ve explained earlier, I do distinguish them, accepting (a) but not (b).

Jason begins by offering two examples of “cartoon libertarianism” – a) the view that “any risk I impose upon you without your consent is wrong and violates your rights,” and b) the view that distribution licensed by the Rawlsian difference principle “involves unjust aggression against innocent people and their property.” This is an odd pair of examples; for a) is something that virtually no libertarian holds, while b) is something that almost every libertarian holds. Hence I worry that the concept of “cartoon libertarianism” is what Rand would call a “package deal,” serving to conflate obviously silly positions with positions that Jason merely happens to disagree with.

Jason goes on to offer a list of symptoms of cartoon libertarianism. Many of the symptoms are described so tendentiously that they essentially have cartoonishness built into them – like using “dogmatically” in the definition. (If you reason dogmatically, you may be dogmatic! Whoa!) It’s certainly fair to take libertarians to task for dismissive caricaturing of their opponents; but doing this is a way that itself amounts to dismissive caricaturing seems rather to defeat one’s point.

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  • Hume22

    “I don’t see morality as being about states of affairs, so much as about actions. And as an Aristotelean I don’t see any difference between endorsing a judgment and acting on it.”

    Do you believe epistemic considerations are ever relevant to the justification/evaluation of action? If so, when/how? It seems to me that epistemic considerations could be a very plausible dimension upon which one finds a difference between endorsing a judgment and acting on it.

  • Libertarian=Jewish-Deception

    Libertarianism is a jewish strategy to atomize white people & leave them helpless in the face of collective Jewish onslaught. Ayn Rand called gullible white cattle individualists, while her own Jewish inner-circle collectivist.

    this is not an ideological battle of left vs right, GOP vs Dems, Socialism vs liberty. This is war against White people.

    Why do hostile globalist elite defend Israel as a Jewish ethnostate with Jewish only immigration, but ravage White majority Europe/North America into a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Gulag with dystopian non-White colonization?

    East Asia is 99% yellow. Africa is 90% Black. West Asia is 99% Brown. But 3rd world colonizers, Muslims, Sikhs, Hispanics, are aggressively advancing their agenda by annihilating gullible Whites, just as China annihilates Tibet.

    How long will gullible Whites cuckold for murderous anti-White elite, who confiscate our guns, infiltrate/subvert our banks, FBI/CIA, indoctrinate White kids in academia/mass media, plunder White jobs/wages, & butcher White soldiers in bankrupting wars?

    “Native” Americans are not native. They invaded from East Asia. Yellow & Brown races committed 10-times more genocide, slavery, imperialism than Whites. Since Old-Testament, Whites have been victims of Jewish/Crypto-Jewish, Turkic, Muslim, N.African imperialism, slavery, genocide.

    Gullible Whites should reject subversive anti-White ideologies – libertarianism, feminism, liberalism, & reject hostile slanders of racism. Love to all humanity, but White people must organize to advance their interests, their fertility, their homelands. Spread this message. Reading list: goo.gl/iB777 , goo.gl/htyeq , amazon.com/dp/0759672229 , amazon.com/dp/1410792617

  • Sean II

    “It’s as though Kevin really wants to argue with an orthodox Rothbardian instead of with me.”

    Lot of that going around, lately.

  • Sean II

    “It’s certainly fair to take libertarians to task for dismissive caricaturing of their opponents; but doing this is a way that itself amounts to dismissive caricaturing seems rather to defeat one’s point.”

    Yes. Thanks to plenty of carping, harping, and overstatement, the cartoon ink has now definitely spilled back onto the charter of the anti-cartoon libertarian party, obscuring whatever value there was to be found in its original text.

    A couple of bad things happen when people started to define themselves by a contrast like this. If your claim to virtue is “not being a cartoon libertarian”, that creates a few unfortunate incentives: 1) You’ll need to exaggerate the size of the contrast group, so it’s you against a big, ugly horde. 2) You’ll need to make the other group sound far worse than they are, by shoveling plenty of straw around plenty of men, and 3) You’ll need to fail at introspection, by forgetting that it might be you who is wrong, and assuming anyone who complains is probably just a cartoon anyway.

    One of the items on the list is “14: Reading this post makes you angry.” Now that’s an old trick but a good one, to say “I will take dissent against my position as further confirmation of it.” A person who plays by such rules need have no fear of being wrong.

    But still, if the list had only been funny, I would’ve gladly forgiven all its sins. The problem is that when you take the humor out of satire, what you end up with is mere petulance, unappetizingly mixed with self-congratulation.

    • Oh, I just noticed that Rod had something to say about me here.

      There’s nothing self-congratulatory about saying one is not a cartoon libertarian. That’s like bragging that one has never been to jail. It’s not something to brag about.

      As for point 14, I stand by that. I didn’t say that if you disagree with me, you’re a cartoon, as you incorrectly suggest. I said that if reading this makes you mad, you might be a cartoon.

      If I really wanted to prove my point, I’d start linking to some of the ridiculous bullshit certain libertarian groups put out there. There is plenty of it on the internet. Or go to any political forum and see what people post. But that just seems too mean. I’d rather just discuss it in the abstract.

      • shemsky

        Why even discuss it, Jason? Why not just say that you think some libertarians don’t have good reasons for some of the things they claim to be true and explain why you think they are wrong? The name calling is not helpful. Now everyone is wondering “Did he call me a cartoon libertarian?”. It’s so pointless.

        • Sean II

          Thank you, Shemsky! It’s taken me five days to figure out how to say this succinctly, but now I think I’ve got it:

          The problem with this whole cartoon libertarian meme is that it measures the entire libertarian movement against a hand-picked group of only the most sophisticated leftists.

          • Damien S.

            I thought the point was to try to get libertarians to be less cartoonish.

        • good_in_theory

          He did write a book about how most people are stupid and really shouldn’t vote because it redounds poorly on him*, so he might not be the best person to look to for suffering fools gladly

          *mean-spirited snark synopsis

      • Sean II

        “That’s like bragging that one has never been to jail. It’s not something to brag about.”

        Well, you’re right about that. I’ve been to jail, and I brag about it as one might show off a shark attack scar. Frankly, I wish more libertarians had the experience.

        One of the things jail teaches you is that there’s nothing abstract about the “gun to the head” of state power. They really do have a gun, and they really do point it at you.

        Is it cartoonish to point that out?

        • Hume22

          “Frankly, I wish more libertarians had the experience.”
          Is this a genuine statement? Is the claim “It is true that (It would be good if more libertarians went to jail.)”, with a built-in “provided that such-and-such occurs as a result”?
          This is not an attempt at a “gotcha!” I’m just trying to flesh out libertarian ideal theories on the one hand, and libertarian nonideal theory on the other, and then get an understanding for how they work in tandem and how they apply under other nonideal conditions and to other nonideal problems.

          • Sean II

            Even if not intended, that is a good old-fashioned TV news gotcha moment: “Man calls for the arrest of all libertarians. Story at 11:00.”

            Here’s what I mean. One of the items on Brennan’s list is “you might be a cartoon libertarian…if you assert that all taxation is theft.” (He thinks this is questions begging because it assumes a theory of property the left disputes.)

            Here’s what he’s missing. Only a small fraction of the left, high up in its intellectual wing, actually disputes the legitimacy of property. Most leftists argue against “taxation is theft” on one or more of following grounds:

            1) How can it be theft if “we the people” do it?

            2) Oh, c’mon! That’s ridiculous. What’s next? Are you going to claim the draft is involuntary servitude?

            3) How can it be theft if so many people voluntarily comply?

            So take number 3. This is a standard leftist position, that consists in refusing to acknowledge the violence in state power because it doesn’t look like regular violence. It’s easy enough to be taken in; after all, when I go to renew my license plates, I don’t feel quite as bad I would if someone stuck a gun in my face and demanded $147 in exchange for letting me drive. So how can they both be violent acts?

            Answer: the state is so violent, so powerful, and we are so disarmed, so indoctrinated, that it never occurs to us to resist, and violent transactions between us and the state eventually take on the outward appearance of peace. Maybe even an avowed libertarian like Brennan is taken in by that appearance, so that he comes to forget the importance of insisting “taxation is theft”.

            Now, I know of one excellent way to rid yourself of the illusion that state violence is somehow metaphorical or abstract or even just different from regular violence, and that’s by getting yourself thrown in jail.

          • good_in_theory

            “Answer: the state is so violent, so powerful, and we are so disarmed, so indoctrinated, that it never occurs to us to resist, and violent transactions between us and the state eventually take on the outward appearance of peace.”

            What is this, Foucault?

          • Sean II

            You’re on a roll, lately. I like it!

      • Sean II

        Almost forgot: If you’ve seen my name around, I trust you’d be able to guess that I am NOT opposed to libertarians having a satirical crack at other libertarians.

        I’m not saying we should ignore the creeps, phonies, cultists, etc. in our little (but perhaps modestly growing) tent. I’m all for using parody and snark to keep the movement on track. I just don’t think your list hit the target.

        I think you left things out that should’ve been in, and put things in that should’ve been out.

  • So whatever suffering the principles of justice demand is suffering that has already passed a consequentialist test. Kevin’s counterfactual, then, in effect asks us to forget the initial consequentialist test and impose a new one at this second stage, and to treat its failing the second test as being still quite as possible as if there had been no initial test.

    Isn’t the obvious response just that the first test wasn’t good enough? No matter how many consequentialist tests it passes, if a moral theory fails to condemn a situation where the poor are left out in the cold, then that’s an argument against that moral theory.

    • Roderick T. long

      Then one should stop calling it a test, if one is determined a priori not to let passing it count for anything.

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