This is the second in a small series of posts that explain a little of what I try to do in my recent book, Toleration. The first post is here.

Libertarians are minarchists or anarchists. That is, we favor a social, political, legal system with either no government or with minimal government. I have long been–and still remain–on the fence about this. I am more interested in what justifies interference in individuals’ lives than I am in who would interfere. Whether the interference comes from one’s government (federal, provincial, or municipal) or one’s employer or church, or even one’s parent or grandparent, is, for me, a secondary question. (I worry about all concentrations or power, not just governmental.) Assuming you are a rational adult, any interference (which I would, though, distinguish from rational persuasion) requires justification. (Interference with children also requires justification, but the justifications may be different.)

On my view, we need a principle (or principles) that allows us to know when interference with others–rather than toleration–is permissible. We need such principles so that we can know for ourselves if our interference with another is acceptable, if other people’s or organizations’ (governmental or otherwise) interference with others is acceptable, and if some piece of interference with us is acceptable. Without a principle (or principles), we are left with ad hoc decisions arbitrarily arrived at (just principles allow for just rule of law). With a principle, we have a clear way to determine the moral limits of toleration.

As I have suggested before, I think we have such a principle–the harm principle:

“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection … the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill 1859, 9).

As I note in the book:

The basic idea is that harm is always a prima facie reason to permit interference, whether to prevent its otherwise imminent occurrence, to penalize those who cause it, or to rectify its damage. No one wants to be harmed. Allowing interference—non-toleration—to prevent it is a good idea.

The basic idea of the harm principle, it should be clear, is fairly non-controversial. The harm principle itself, though, is controversial. This is because if we take Mill seriously in the passages he provides the principle, he tells us that harm is the sole end justifying interference, the only purpose that offers such justification. If there is no harm, on that reading, there is no cause for interference.

On my view, we should endorse a strict version of the principle such that no other justifications for interference are accepted. Most people–almost certainly including Mill—would endorse a less strict version that allows for the endorsement of other principles that indicate reasons interference may be permitted even absent any harm. In chapter 4, I spend much time going over the offense principle, the benefits-to-other principle, legal paternalism, and legal moralism. I realize that some readers will end up accepting one or more of those principles–and all have brilliant defenders–but I do advocate rejecting them all.

Many will, of course, now wonder what “harm” is.

I … follow Joel Feinberg’s analysis of the sort of “harm” that is relevant to the harm principle as a wrongful setback to interests (see for e.g., Feinberg 1984, 36).

Harms, for the purposes of the harm principle, are wrongful setbacks to interest. What does this mean? There are, obviously, two elements to the idea: wrongfulness and interest-setback [the latter can be split into 2 parts: interests and setbacks to such]. Readers will likely be concerned with the first of these and perhaps also with the second. Rightfully so. These are difficult and controversial concepts.

Of course, people will disagree about whether a specific act is a wrongful setback of another’s interests. Disagreement, though, does not mean there is no fact of the matter. Even if we don’t know what the fact of the matter is, there is one. For my purposes, we can allow that courts will sort out the details to determine of there is a harm or not. It is important, though, that only if one suffers a harm in the technical sense does one have a rightful claim against others–the state included–to interfere. If no one is harmed, no interference is permitted. (Of course, we are always free to reason with others, whether trying to persuade them to do what we think they ought or trying to dissuade them from doing what we think they ought not.)

All of this, I think is quite conducive to a libertarian view. States are to have their powers limited to those necessary for harm prevention and rectification. Benefiting people, preventing offensive behavior, preventing immoral (or supposedly immoral) but non-harmful behavior, and preventing people from hurting themselves when they do things they rationally seek to do—all reasons taken to justify interferences in the modern state—are ruled out as justifications for any state action if we take the strict version of the harm principle seriously.

Importantly, the harm principle requires (something like) the Feinbergian understanding of harm. If a branch from a tree on my property falls and hits me (and no one else was responsible for caring for the tree), I cannot claim to be harmed—for there is no wrong done me–and so no interference on my behalf is warranted. Someone who consents to ride in a car with a drunkard can’t claim to be harmed when the drunkard gets into an accident–and so no interference on their behalf is warranted (things are different, of course, with regard to someone on the side of the road or in another car can since they did not consent). No one can claim to be harmed by homosexual acts committed by other consenting adults–so no interference is warranted on their behalf. Or drug use by other adults fully informed of the results of their decisions. Or physician assisted suicide or euthanasia among the fully informed who consent. In all of these cases, those not involved are not wronged and so do not have their interests wrongfully setback (though there is no reason to deny that their interests may be set back)—are not harmed–and so no interference on their behalf is warranted. And that list of things that might be called “harms” in loser language can be greatly expanded.

I hope it is now clear that endorsing the strict version of the harm principle is quite conducive to (or just is) libertarianism. A thorough-going commitment to the principle, though, is also quite conducive to (or just is) the particular form of libertarianism we advocate on this site: bleeding heart libertarianism. More about that in the next post.

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  • Rachelle

    The harm principle is inferior to, say, the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative.

    First of all, you have to justify it with some kind of rule-utilitarianism (which is full of its own problems and is murdered by Hume’s Guillotine). Otherwise, it is just arbitrary; it doesn’t enjoy the a priori justification of, say, principles that emerge from deontological ethics. If you disagree with me here, it’s just because you suck at philosophy and can’t figure out deontology. I don’t care if you have a Ph.D.

    Secondly, what constitutes “harm” is is grounded in something completely subjective. What might be harm to someone might be pleasure to another person. Even things that are objective, like cutting someone’s arm off, is not necessarily harm. The person could indeed enjoy such a thing, whereas someone else would be in terror if it occurred. So, the *actual* determining condition is something else apart from harm (hint hint?).

    Third, I can give you an intuition-pumping counter-example right here. Suppose you put your hand on my breast. I would be hard pressed to be able to demonstrate any type of “harm” that has been committed; indeed, you have no intention of harming me, you only want to cop a quick feel. Perhaps it even tickles or the warmth of your hand feels nice. In any case, no real, demonstrable harm obtains. So, by the harm principle, your placing your hand on my breast is not prohibited.

    From the above, it should be clear that a sufficient condition for intervention or prohibiting something should not be “harm,” but indeed another condition that underlies cases in which harm may or may not obtain. Want to take a guess? If you get it right, maybe you’ll be worthy of a Ph.D.

    • M Lister

      “If you disagree with me here, it’s just because you suck at philosophy
      and can’t figure out deontology. I don’t care if you have a Ph.D.

      Huh. That’s certainly a powerful argument form that I’m going to ave to remember for future cases. I expect it can be adapted to all different sorts of purposes.

    • http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwphi/4843.html Andrew Cohen

      You might consider recognizing a difference between moral philosophy and political philosophy, a subset thereof. Or not.

    • Andrew

      You might consider recognizing a difference between moral philosophy and political philosophy, a subset thereof. Or not.

    • Jason Brennan

      This comment is stupid.

  • http://thoughtsonliberty.com/ Gina Luttrell

    I dig this. However, I must ask the standard philosopher’s question: how are you defining “interference” here? I think that is important for a libertarian as well.

    • Andrew

      Fair question and I have to admit that I don’t have a fully worked out definition as of yet. That said, I count aid as a form of interference if it is not requested. This will be important for reasons that will be apparent in my next post on this topic.

      • http://thoughtsonliberty.com/ Gina Luttrell

        If I may be so bold, I think figuring that out is going to be crucial, both for libertarian and non-libertarian audiences. This is particularly true if you want to convince libertarian audience that interferences not from the government are something that should be ethically suspect. For non-libertarian audiences, they will probably want to know where the line is for a government to act, if it can even do so under this framework.

        FWIW, though, I like the use of the harm principle in your work. :)

        • Andrew

          Gina-Thanks. I agree–though it took me a long time to see this. I plan to work on it for the next book which, I suspect, will be a good bit denser than this one. I have to say, though, working with an intuitive notion of interference has done me quite well.

  • Aeon Skoble

    I don’t think Feinberg’s way of cashing out “harm” does the work we need it to. Locking up serial killers sets back their interests. Another way to cash it out might be “violating their rights.” I harm you not when I violate your rights. Obviously the next question is what rights do you have – one answer consistent with what Mill is doing might be that you have all the rights that are consistent with everyone else’s rights.

    • Cindy Phillips

      You missed “wrongful”. Locking up serial killers sets back their interests, but it doesn’t do it wrongfully. And why use a vague moral term to define another vague moral term?

      • Aeon Skoble

        If it’s “wrongful” set back of interests, you’ll need some other concept anyway, might as well go straight to rights.

    • Andrew

      Aeon-You’re not the only one to think this of course. For me, though, rights talk is just short hand for something else (something I have no interest in specifying). And Cindy is right–setting back killers’ interests by jailing them is not wrongful. Now, you can say “but its not wrongful because it doesn’t violate their rights,” but that seems like its at best a draw. I don’t see why I should worry about demonstrating rights violations (and having a theory of rights to do so) if I can show a wrongful setback of interests. I find it far more straightforward to discuss wrongs done than rights violated. I think people get agreement about the former far more easily.

      • Aeon Skoble

        Fair enough. I’ll hang back for now.

      • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

        Rights and wrongs are corollaries. Wronging someone implies that you have violated some kind of right. The next step is to figure out the context; is it a moral context or a legal context, or is there an overlap? (Or maybe some other context.)

        Example: A mother says to her son, “You have no right to talk to me that way!”

        The mother believes that her son has wronged her in some way. She might mean that she has a moral right not to be talked to in a certain way. She might mean that she will throw her son out of her house for the way he talked to her.

        Discussions of rights don’t necessarily have to be in the context of liberty, but you can’t talk about wrongs without talking about rights.

        • Andrew

          Seth-You assert that “Wronging someone implies that you have violated some kind of right” but you don’t defend that or offer a theory of rights to explain it. I wouldn’t expect you to here, of course. But my point in my response to Aeon is that a defense and theory of that sort is needed if we are to take that view seriously. To my mind, people just assert that there are rights and wrongs are violations thereof. I think there are wrongs that are not violations of rights and that identifying wrongs is easier than identifying rights. Putting it simply: I take wrongs to be more basic than rights; you take rights to be more basic than wrongs. I think my view has advantages–including the fact that I think it clear we can wrong (and even harm) animals that have no rights.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            A is larger than B implies that B is smaller than A. It’s not a theory; one implies the other. They are corollaries.

            If you are wrong to do something, that implies that you are not right to do it. If A has a right X, then if B violates X, B has wronged A. Or to turn it around: if B has wronged A by doing Y, then B has violated A’s right to not having Y done to him. The question is what kind of right is X, not whether or not A has X as a right, or what kind of right is the absence of Y.

            Scenario: A man cheats on his wife.

            The wife says that her husband has wronged her. The question is: in what context? If the wife says that her husband has wronged her morally, then this implies that she had a moral right to have her husband be faithful. If the wife says that her husband wronged her legally, then this implies that she had a legal right to have her husband be faithful.

            Scenario: A kills B.

            If we say that A is wrong to kill B, then this implies that B has a right not to be killed, or that B has a right to life, whichever way you prefer to phrase it. The question is: in what context? Is A wrong to kill B in a moral context or a legal context? But in either context, you can’t talk about wrongs without talking about rights.

            Putting it simply: I take wrongs to be more basic than rights; you take rights to be more basic than wrongs.

            I have no idea how you got that out of my comment, because I did not say that; what I did say does not imply that; and it is not my position. Rights and wrongs are corollaries. Neither is more basic than the other.

            I agree with you that sometimes it is easier to refer to wrongs instead of rights, but that is largely because language can be clumsy in certain contexts, so it is easier to use one instead of the other.

            To my mind, people just assert that there are rights and wrongs are violations thereof. I think there are wrongs that are not violations of rights and that identifying wrongs is easier than identifying rights.

            When you deconstruct the language, you can see that some moral wrongs are not violations of legal rights. Or in the case of common libertarian claims, some moral wrongs are not violations of other moral rights, i.e. liberty. For example, if you consider lying to someone to wrong them, then lying to them is a violation of their moral right not to be lied to, but it is not necessarily a violation of their moral right to liberty. Someone else might not consider lying to be morally wrong, and therefore lying to someone does not violate a moral right not to be lied to because they don’t believe that person has that right to begin with.

            Ultimately, saying that right and wrong are not corollaries is the same as saying that moral and immoral are not corollaries, or larger and smaller, etc.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            A is larger than B implies that B is smaller than A. It’s not a theory; one implies the other. They are corollaries.

            If you are wrong to do something, that implies that you are not right to do it. If A has a right X, then if B violates X, B has wronged A. Or to turn it around: if B has wronged A by doing Y, then B has violated A’s right to not having Y done to him. The question is what kind of right is X, not whether or not A has X as a right, or what kind of right is the absence of Y.

            Scenario: A man cheats on his wife.

            The wife says that her husband has wronged her. The question is: in what context? If the wife says that her husband has wronged her morally, then this implies that she had a moral right to have her husband be faithful. If the wife says that her husband wronged her legally, then this implies that she had a legal right to have her husband be faithful.

            Scenario: A kills B.

            If we say that A is wrong to kill B, then this implies that B has a right not to be killed, or that B has a right to life, whichever way you prefer to phrase it. The question is: in what context? Is A wrong to kill B in a moral context or a legal context? But in either context, you can’t talk about wrongs without talking about rights.

            Putting it simply: I take wrongs to be more basic than rights; you take rights to be more basic than wrongs.

            I have no idea how you got that out of my comment, because I did not say that; what I did say does not imply that; and it is not my position. Rights and wrongs are corollaries. Neither is more basic than the other.

            I agree with you that sometimes it is easier to refer to wrongs instead of rights, but that is largely because language can be clumsy in certain contexts, so it is easier to use one instead of the other.

            To my mind, people just assert that there are rights and wrongs are violations thereof. I think there are wrongs that are not violations of rights and that identifying wrongs is easier than identifying rights.

            When you deconstruct the language, you can see that some moral wrongs are not violations of legal rights. Or in the case of common libertarian claims, some moral wrongs are not violations of other moral rights, i.e. liberty. For example, if you consider lying to someone to wrong them, then lying to them is a violation of their moral right not to be lied to, but it is not necessarily a violation of their moral right to liberty. Someone else might not consider lying to be morally wrong, and therefore lying to someone does not violate a moral right not to be lied to because they don’t believe that person has that right to begin with.

            Ultimately, saying that right and wrong are not corollaries is the same as saying that moral and immoral are not corollaries, or larger and smaller, etc.

          • Andrew

            1. Re: beginning part, with the 2 scenarios. You are only asserting there are rights present. I’ve already responded to that objection. (But see below, esp. #5.)

            2. Saying, as you did, “Wronging someone implies that you have violated some kind of right” is often indicative of taking rights to be more primary than wrongs. But, fair enough, it isn’t entailed. You think they are correlative which I assume for you entails they are equally primary (or equally not primary). I might even agree, depending on how you spelled out rights.

            3. I actually think some moral wrongs are not violations of any moral rights. I think its morally wrong to boil a live kitten. I don’t think the kitten has any rights at all.

            4. In that same–penultimate–paragraph of your comment, it seems like you go pretty subjectivist with morality and/or rights being dependent on what people take to be moral and/or a right. I would reject that. I realize I may be misreading you here; if I am, I hope you’ll correct me.

            5. Love the last paragraph. It helps. I do think “right” and “wrong” are corollaries and never meant to deny that. I am not at all sure, though, that rights and wrongs are corollaries–because I have no theory of rights. I take a wrong to be, simply, the doing of something that is wrong. A right is not, I think, simply the doing of something that is right.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            I am a value subjectivist, as value is not within things; only subjects value. The most famous illustration of this is the saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Focusing on language is crucial here because it gives us insight into how a particular person conceives of morality. Consider murder. The most common definition (and coincidentally more or less the legal definition) is a wrongful homicide motivated by malice. This distinguishes it from manslaughter as that is typically a wrongful homicide but without malice. Some people consider all homicide to be wrongful even in self-defense, and some even extend the concept of murder to be a wrongful killing in order to include animals. In any particular homicide, the ‘objective’ or ‘inherent’ facts of the matter is that one person has killed another. When someone refers to a homicide as a murder, that gives us insight into how they view the morality of the act.

            These two examples might make my position clearer:

            Consider right of way. In a conflict over travel, the person with the right of way is considered to be ‘in the right’; the other person is considered to be ‘in the wrong’. Typically, people think about right of way in terms of law, but each person also considers whether their morality is in line with the law. Right and wrong enter when there is a conflict or a dispute between two acting beings.

            Consider prostitution. If prostitution is legal, then a person who acts to interfere with prostitution would be in the wrong, acting wrongfully, or violating the rights of those involved in the act of prostitution. A person might consider prostitution to be morally wrong, in which case they would be morally right to prevent prostitution. If prostitution is legal, then a person who interferes with prostitution might consider his actions to be morally right but legally wrong.

            Animals are a tricky case because morality and law get mixed up frequently. Sometimes when someone is in the wrong for harming an animal, it is because the animal is owned by another person, so the rights being violated would be the owner’s. But if someone, such as a vegan, takes the position that animals have the moral right not to be harmed, then a person harming the animal would be wronging it by violating its moral rights. Animals can never have rights in the legal sense, as they are not participants in a legal system and can only receive protections from actual legal actors. But some people consider animals to have moral rights and others do not.

            I actually just had a conversation about ‘animal rights’ two days ago, so if you are interested in what I think on that in more depth, here are the links. The first (http://thoughtsonliberty.com/you-dont-need-a-registry-to-prevent-animal-abuse#comment-1288612282) were some of my thoughts, and the second (http://thoughtsonliberty.com/you-dont-need-a-registry-to-prevent-animal-abuse#comment-1288681909) is my discussion with one of the writers at the Thoughts on Liberty blog.

          • Andrew

            1. http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2011/08/against-subjectivism/

            In a nutshell: the idea that someone necessarily acts morally right when she happens to consider herself morally right is scary and false.

            2. A very brief look at what you posted about animal rights suggests the same can be said about rights for human persons. (I’m not committing to anything about the particulars.)

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            1) Your blog post does not address the value subjectivism recognized by the Austrian school of economics or of verstehen in the tradition of Max Weber. Value subjectivism has nothing whatsoever to say about the existence or nonexistence of God, nor is that considered to be a matter of subjectivity.

            There is not one atom of beauty in the Mona Lisa. If one considers it to be beautiful, that is a value held by a subject. The object, the Mona Lisa, does not have an inherent quality known as beauty.

            “In a nutshell: the idea that someone necessarily acts morally right when she happens to consider herself morally right is scary and false.”

            That is not my position. My position is: a person who considers himself to be acting rightfully necessarily considers himself to be acting rightfully. That says nothing about the opinions or values of other people. Nor do I find anything scary or false about that. It is necessarily true because it is a tautology, and I’m not scared by tautologies.

            2) Absolutely. I don’t know how much you read of what I said, but the key points are these:

            (a) The law (and norms generally) are institutions that serve to both resolve conflicts and to avoid them. In conflicts, humans have the capability of arguing and justifying their actions to other humans. This is a necessary component of law. Animals currently cannot justify their actions to other animals or to humans, nor can humans justify their actions to animals. In a strictly descriptive sense, only actors that can justify their actions through argumentation can participate in a legal system and therefore be said to have legal rights.

            (b) Any talk of animal ‘rights’ is really animal ‘protections’. Since they do not participate in a legal system, if they are to avoid harm they must be protected by those who *are* participants in a legal system.

          • Andrew

            I take value subjectivism to be false; its true I did not address it in this post. I addressed it in the post I linked to and some earlier posts linked to in that one. Its also true that value subjectivism is not about God; the example about God is for a broader subjectivism. Why we should be subjectivist about value and not other things has never been clear to me.

            The tautology doesn’t scare me either. I assumed you meant something more. When you said “A person might consider prostitution to be morally wrong, in which case they would be morally right to prevent prostitution,” I took you to mean that the morality of their action (preventing prostitution) depends on their consideration of the case. They consider P wrong and interfering with P right, so they act morally in interfering with P. (Standard objection: the Nazis considered it morally good to interfere with the lives of Jews and others, so they acted morally right in doing so. Clearly not.)

            Perhaps you simply think there is no such thing as morality?

            Regarding the legal stuff: I think we agree about most (maybe all) of this.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            A denial of value subjectivism creates all sorts of problems that are easily solved by recognizing that only subjects value. A classic example is that of the value of water versus diamonds. Why is it that diamonds are generally considered more valuable than water? Or why is water suddenly so valuable after a natural disaster, in the desert, or (I imagine) in space?

            This is all easily understood by recognizing that there is no inherent value found in these things; these things have value because these objects have utility to subjects. Water has less utility and is less valuable to a person who has just quenched his thirst. The water in the bottle he is drinking from hasn’t changed, the order of his preferences has changed and the utility of the water for him has changed.

            They consider P wrong and interfering with P right, so they act morally in interfering with P. (Standard objection: the Nazis considered it morally good to interfere with the lives of Jews and others, so they acted morally right in doing so. Clearly not.)

            My position: They consider P wrong and interfering with P right, so they act morally in interfering with P *in their opinion*. I might disagree entirely and believe that interfering with P is wrong. Interfering with P might be right according to them but not right according to me.

            Perhaps you simply think there is no such thing as morality?

            No, I believe that there is morality, I just don’t believe in absolute or inherent morality. Naturally I believe that my particular beliefs are moral and that many other beliefs are immoral, but that doesn’t mean that my particular beliefs reside within objects. I think Fritz Wunderlich’s voice is beautiful, but there is no inherent quality of beauty found in his voice, and there are many people who find operatic voices to sound terrible. Neither belief is *inherently* correct. The same reasoning extends to morality.

          • Andrew

            1. The sort of subjectivism you endorse and the sort of absolutism you oppose it to are not the only options. I think both false.
            2. Its true that only subjects value. My valuing X and X being a value (or being valuable, or being of value) are not the same. See my earlier posts about this.
            3. I shouldn’t go here, but here I go: what is the value of freedom? Or the market? I take it on your view neither has any value unless someone believes they do–and then, of course, they only have value for those people. Similarly, I take it truth only has value for people that value it. Perhaps more to the point, objective truth only has value for those that value it. And, I take it, you think there is no such thing–or no value in it if there is. So why should I respond further? (I value objective truth and I suppose one might say I can further my knowledge of it even by dialoguing with someone who does not, but I’m not sure the latter is true. I’m also not sure what motivation that would leave you with for responding!)

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            1) You better warn Steven Horwitz he’s been studying economics based on a false framework! (Instead of citing Mises, Lachmann, Weber, etc., I’ll just point to a Horwitz essay instead! http://www.cato-unbound.org/2012/09/05/steven-horwitz/empirics-austrian-economics )

            2) But the value is not found within things, only the mind.

            3) To me, liberty is both an end in itself and a means to prosperity. I value the market because social cooperation enables us to have better lives. It is entirely possible that a person might not value liberty and cooperation, either as ends in themselves or as means to some other ends — I would think that such a person would probably be a great danger to others’ well-being.

            Yes, truth only has value to people who value it. Some people value truth as an end in itself, others as a means to an end. I doubt there are very many people who would rank truth as their highest value. Many people clearly do not, as evidenced by the existence of etiquette and tact.

            I do believe that there is objective truth.

            Regarding the value of furthering our discussion, it all depends on what either of us hopes to gain out of it. To me, I find value in stimulating conversation and defending and exploring my ideas in greater depth. I also think that the value subjectivism of the Austrian school and of Weber’s sociology is greatly and unfortunately overlooked, so I also find value in explaining it to other people (but generally not offline, because that would probably irritate my friends).

            Is there an inherent value to our conversation? Or is its value in its use for our purposes?

          • Andrew

            1. Steve: “Economics is radically subjectivist in the sense that human action depends upon the perceptions of the world held by the actor.” That is not what we are discussing. Nothing I said entails denying that.
            2. I don’t understand when you say “liberty is an end in itself.” Does it value itself? Perhaps you mean it has “value as an end to you.” I’m not sure I know what that means or why anyone should care. It would just be your opinion, right?
            3. The market allows us to lead “better lives”? What is “better”? Of course, whatever people happen to like for themselves. OK, why does it matter if people get lives they like? Not, I gather, because that is objectively good! On your view, there is no such thing.
            4. I don’t see the point in defending an idea that is only valuable because you value it. I prefer to defend ideas that actually have value. That is, that are objective value.

            And, on that note, I suspect this will be my last reply. I prefer conversation with people that think their ideas have objective value.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            1) It is exactly what we are discussing. Either you are misunderstanding me or I am not making my position clear, but it is *absolutely* what is being discussed. I think I’ve done a good job of explaining value subjectivism, so I think the disconnect is on your end.

            2) ‘Liberty is an end in itself’ means that liberty is something that is valued for its own sake as opposed to being valued as a means to an end.

            3) Really? You think that I might not find value in a process that enables me to have washing machines, computers, cheap food, good medical care, etc.? Having these things matters a great deal to me, and I suspect it matters a great deal to most everyone else. It’s your use of language here that is what leads me to believe that you are not familiar with the subjectivism that I’m presenting.

            4) This is a perfect example that demonstrates that you are unfamiliar with the value subjectivism of the Austrian School or of Max Weber. That’s fine, as it is relatively obscure. You might not consider me worth your time, and that is fine too, but I strongly suspect that Steven Horwitz would disagree with you on value subjectivism, and I do imagine you would consider a debate with him to be worth your time. Horwitz might not agree with all of my positions here, but considering he recognizes the value of subjectivism, I think he would agree with me at least on that much.

          • Andrew

            Actually, I suspect you would be very much worth having a conversation with if you weren’t committed to subjectivism as you’ve explained it.

            You miss the thrust of #3. You can’t say people leading the lives they value is itself of objective value–that is, value independent of those who happen to value it. I can say that. I would say that. I think Steve does too. But the form of subjectivism you (seem to me to) have endorsed rules it out.

            IMPORTANT: Something’s being of objective value does not (at least not necessarily) mean value “reside[s] within objects.”

          • Steven Horwitz

            I only have a couple of minutes right now, but Seth has confused the subjective theory of value with value subjectivism. The subjective theory of (economic) value simply tells us that the *economic* value of goods and services derives from the perceptions of the human actors valuing them. Its truth has no necessary implications for how we value things in other ways and other realms. One can believe that some art is more (objectively) valuable *as art* than other art but still recognize that its economic value is driving by subjectivism.

            Seth is using different notions of value as if they were the same.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            Eh, both Mises and Lachmann are clear on the point that the subjective theory of value applies to praxeology generally, not economics specifically. This is a point that Rothbard was critical of Mises on, because Mises was very clear in his belief that absolute/inherent/objective morality (and natural law) is bogus, and Rothbard of course disagreed.

            I know, I know, I shouldn’t appeal to authority and say, “But Mises and Lachmann said otherwise!” But the fact that they did so does indicate at the very least that my interpretation of value subjectivism is not without some basis from Austrian economics scholars. If you and Rothbard only want to apply it to economics, so be it, and maybe that is considered orthodox Austrian economics (which is a pretty ironic statement in itself), but it’s not like I just pulled this out of my ass.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            On the off chance that anyone is actually reading this conversation, here is an unambiguous section where Mises flat out takes the opposite position of Steven Horwitz: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mises-theory-and-history-an-interpretation-of-social-and-economic-evolution-lf-ed#lf0844_label_105

            From Mises’ perspective, the truth of what Steven Horwitz refers to as the ‘subjective theory of economic value’ is contingent on the truth of the ‘subjective theory of value’. I figured, apparently mistakenly, that Horwitz would have subscribed to Mises’ conception of praxeology, as Horwitz hasn’t actually renounced its usefulness and applicability to economics.

            I guess if Horwitz’s position is that Mises and Lachmann and others are mistaken, that’s one thing, but then I think it would be more accurate to not call my position confused but to state plainly that Mises and others are just plain wrong. No need to sugar coat things for me and call my position “confused”. Just be plain and say that Mises and Lachmann are wrong, and that I’m wrong by implication for agreeing with them.

          • Aeon Skoble
          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            1) Mises, the father of praxeology, does not limit value to the context of the price system. If you are referring to economists broadly, then sure. But if you are referring to Austrian economists, then that is only partially true, because only some of them believe that. Here is a source where Mises lays out a case in direct contradiction to your video: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mises-theory-and-history-an-interpretation-of-social-and-economic-evolution-lf-ed#lf0844_label_105

            2) Your use of objective in terms of rights sounds a lot like intersubjective agreement. Analogy: words don’t have inherent or absolute meanings, they are purely subjective, but in order to communicate, we have to agree to meanings if we are to understand each other. In terms of law and therefore legal rights, we all have our own conception of right and wrong, but if we are to cooperate, we have to reach intersubjective agreement in terms of the norms of society. A real world example is the English common law that emerged from the successful resolution of disputes, especially way back when in the moots when it was still considered a customary legal system.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            Regarding (3), I don’t see this is a defect of my position. Before Mises subjective value into praxeology, Weber was using it in his particular brand of verstehen. It has far more explanatory power for interpreting real world action, and it also has the use of being able to appeal to intersubjective agreement of values. In other words, if I know that you value the material goods and medicine and whatnot of the modern “market” economies, then I can appeal to these values and explain that there are certain means that realize these values, such as the free market.

            Or in other words (again), I am mainly a libertarian because I value liberty as an end, but I also recognize the value of Mises’ brand of utilitarianism to explaining to others the value of a free market.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            Somehow my edit keeps getting eaten, so here it is: EDIT: While some philosophers are busy trying to identify “objective” value that is floating about in the ether, they could be trying to identify the values of others and explain to them why the unhampered market is the best means to realizing these values. Or identifying when it’s not the case either, even though most people really do value prosperity, in material goods, health, and relationships.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            Actually, I suspect you would be very much worth having a conversation with if you weren’t committed to subjectivism as you’ve explained it.

            Translation: You would be worth my time if you had the “proper” views.

            It doesn’t appear to be much of a consolation…

          • Andrew

            1. No one seriously thinks “‘objective’ value is floating about in the ether.” You might try reading serious philosophy before condemning it.

            2. About your translation. Put it this way : if someone told you that they value what they think (or their ability to think) but assume that what they think has no more real value (or truth) than what anyone else thinks, including those that think the opposite, why would you listen? Its not really about having the right substantive views–at least not about anything else–its about declaring yourself to think your substantive views have no value. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            1) It’s called being facetious. I used to believe what you did, but after reading enough Mises, Lachmann, Weber, etc., I have reached another conclusion instead.

            2) Whoa, why is it that you *keep* misrepresenting my position? That’s a serious question, as I’ve several times now had to point out that you are ascribing to me views that I do not hold. I stated earlier that I do believe in objective truth and that I don’t equate value with truth. I think that Mises’ position has truth and that yours doesn’t. And I have never said that my views have no value. I have stated the exact *opposite*! I value them! Other people who share these views value them! How is it that you must insist on ascribing to me a view that I don’t hold?

            Why? What do you hope to gain by doing that?

          • Andrew

            Last time: saying you value them is NOT saying they have value.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            If you don’t think I’m worth your time because you don’t care for subjective value theories, fine. But why don’t you read an argument for it? You want me to read serious arguments in favor of objective value? Why don’t you extend to me the same courtesy and read some Mises on subjective value?

            Hypocrisy is an unbecoming quality. I’ve provided a link to it above twice. Read it or don’t. It’s up to you. But if think you’ve actually considered this other position, then it does not appear whatsoever in your use of language.

          • Andrew

            Sorry, actually meant to note earlier: when I click on the link you provided, I get the whole book. I’ve read the book (granted, it was years ago) and don’t have time to read the whole thing again. If you want to point to a specific passage, I’d be happy to look at it.
            That said, I still think you are conflating 2 senses of subjectivism that should not be conflated and my guess is that I’ve read more of the work you are thinking about than you’ve read of the work I am thinking about.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            That sounds likely. You are older than me, and I can only dedicate some free time as my profession is something else. The link works for me, on Windows 7 Chrome, so it might be a browser issue. The section is Part 1: Value. Some chapters in that part are more relevant than others.

          • Andrew

            As I recall it, there is much there about value judgements and less about values–as one would expect, but that there is also mixed in some not-very-good discussion about historical claims regarding “absolute” values. (I’ve never been sure what people mean by “absolute” so it often stands out to me.)

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            As I recall it…

            Well if you aren’t going to read it, why ask me for the section…

            Mises writes more about values as judgements and not as you use it because he explicitly argues against your use throughout many of his writings: Theory & History, Epistemological Problems of Economics, Human Action, etc. Theory & History has a bit more focus on this and is shorter than the others, which is why I tried to link to the section in it instead of trying to hunt down paragraphs here and there from the others.

            One thing I can’t figure out is why you won’t state what your belief is (your blog post you linked to and the link within that one do not address the substance of this conversation of Mises’ value subjectivism). I state that I hold that value is only within the mind and not within objects, and you say that you disagree (well you did say that you do agree that subjects value). But then you say that the value does not have to be within objects, nor does it have to float about in the ether. Are we talking about alternate dimensions now?

            If you hold that value isn’t within the mind nor within objects nor anywhere else, where is it? Why does it matter to you that there is objective value?

            Clearly certain things have value *to me*, but this isn’t good enough for you. The value of these things must be somewhere else or it just doesn’t count as legitimate…

            I really should have asked you earlier, but now that I think about it, whatever. I walked into the lion’s den where you, Horwitz, and Skoble feel fit to use your reputations here to get around actually addressing the ideas and really just to repeatedly dismiss me. I should have realized a long time ago that actual discussion wasn’t really to be expected here.

            Kudos to you for at least responding to most of the substance of my comments, but I can’t help but have a bitter taste in my mouth after seeing that there was no real intention to either demonstrate where I went wrong (in your opinion, of course I’m inclined to think that I’m not wrong on this) or point me in the direction to where I could read what it is you are basing your ideas on objective value on.

            You wanted to end this conversation earlier a few times, so I guess we should just call it quits. If you want to send me links either to online articles, essays, and books or links to books that can only be read offline, I’ll look into. But I think at this point the conversation really just isn’t going to go into this topic any further.

            It’s mostly been pretty fun, and I’m sure I’ll bump into you more around here.

            Good night.

          • Andrew

            Seth-

            1. You expect, I gather, for me to read a chapter (actually several) of a book you value (but would not say has objective value) immediately and respond accordingly. What makes you think you are entitled to that, I don’t know.

            2. You assert repeatedly a claim that 2 academic philosophers and an academic economist have told you is wrong and barely flinch. I sort of get why you think Aeon Skoble and myself could be wrong–we’re philosophers not economists. But Steve Horwitz also indicated you were wrong and he’s not only an economist and one of the best in the Austrian tradition, but the one you thought would say you were right. He, Aeon, and I have indicated we all think you are wrong. We’ve pointed to the specific error you’ve made (OK, or “that we believe you’ve made”). You recognize this is not your field. Why not think “hmmmm … maybe I should go back and reread those books in light of these comments … maybe I misunderstood”?

            3. You seem now to acknowledge that the work you linked to does not say what you had claimed.

            Despite all of that (and more), you now seem to think we’ve mistreated you. I am sorry you feel that way, but if anything, its the other way around.

            But OK.

            4. You ask for my view about the nature of value and don’t see why I haven’t laid it out. Short answer: (a) its more complex than I am willing to do here–sorry there are limits to the time I can give this as I have to do what I get paid to do and have time for my personal life (b) I do not consider myself an expert on the topic. There is great work on the topic. Moral realism and moral universalism (forms of value realism and universalism) are well-defended (and also attacked). I could point you to some of the best work in the field, but you’ve already suggested you don’t have time to read such things. And, I should admit, much of it is dense and likely requires reading with others that are better-versed in the topic to fully understand. Still, if you want something of a primer, look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on-line for moral realism.

            5. As for your “alternative dimensions” joke: look up supervenience (consider this: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-non-naturalism/#ExpSup.). Also: consider that others, with more creative intelligence than you or I, may come up with theories that have more explanatory value than we can imagine.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            No, I expect you to continue to attribute claims to me that I did not make, though I’ll refrain from guessing your intentions. Let’s be clear, I never said I don’t have the time to read these things, nor did I suggest that. I said specifically that “I can only dedicate some free time”. And the fact that I asked for recommendations should also indicate that I have the time to read them. And as for your other claim, I never said that the book does not say what I said it claimed; I specifically said “Mises writes *more* about values as judgements and not as you use it because he explicitly argues against your use throughout many of his writings.” Neither of your claims reflect at all what I actually said.

            Regarding Steve Horwitz, as he does consider himself an economist in the Austrian tradition, I would be curious to know why he disagrees with Ludwig von Mises about morality, and I would also be curious to know why he limits the subjective theory of value only to economics when both Ludwig von Mises and Ludwig Lachmann *explicitly* argue otherwise. It’s not really a matter of misunderstanding them but of why Steve disagrees with them.

            Regarding mistreatment, I thought we were having a pleasant conversation all the way up until you said this: “And, on that note, I suspect this will be my last reply. I prefer conversation with people that think their ideas have objective value.” Perhaps that was meant as a joke and I misinterpreted your intentions. But when Steve and Aeon posted only to dismiss instead of addressing the substance of what I was saying, I think things became very clear then. Expecting me to just take people’s word for things isn’t particularly helpful for me, especially when I’ve read unambiguous arguments against your position.

            Thank you for the suggestions from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but unfortunately they didn’t address Mises’ arguments. As for your comment: “Moral realism and moral universalism (forms of value realism and universalism) are well-defended (and also attacked)”, perhaps it might occur to you that I have been convinced by those that attack it and not by those that defend it. But of course I’ll just have to take your word for it anyway.

          • Andrew

            I don’t think I have mistakenly attributed anything to you that I didn’t afterward correct.
            You’ll find most philosophers don’t address Mises’ arguments. I’ll not comment on why.

            As for the comment about not wanting to engage with people that don’t believe in objectivity or objective value. I’ve gone through it too much–not only here–and am simply not willing to give more on that score.

          • Andrew

            I don’t think I have mistakenly attributed anything to you that I didn’t afterward correct.
            You’ll find most philosophers don’t address Mises’ arguments. I’ll not comment on why.

            As for the comment about not wanting to engage with people that don’t believe in objectivity or objective value. I’ve gone through it too much–not only here–and am simply not willing to give more on that score.

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            I am a value subjectivist, as value is not within things; only subjects value. The most famous illustration of this is the saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Focusing on language is crucial here because it gives us insight into how a particular person conceives of morality. Consider murder. The most common definition (and coincidentally more or less the legal definition) is a wrongful homicide motivated by malice. This distinguishes it from manslaughter as that is typically a wrongful homicide but without malice. Some people consider all homicide to be wrongful even in self-defense, and some even extend the concept of murder to be a wrongful killing in order to include animals. In any particular homicide, the ‘objective’ or ‘inherent’ facts of the matter is that one person has killed another. When someone refers to a homicide as a murder, that gives us insight into how they view the morality of the act.

            These two examples might make my position clearer:

            Consider right of way. In a conflict over travel, the person with the right of way is considered to be ‘in the right’; the other person is considered to be ‘in the wrong’. Typically, people think about right of way in terms of law, but each person also considers whether their morality is in line with the law. Right and wrong enter when there is a conflict or a dispute between two acting beings.

            Consider prostitution. If prostitution is legal, then a person who acts to interfere with prostitution would be in the wrong, acting wrongfully, or violating the rights of those involved in the act of prostitution. A person might consider prostitution to be morally wrong, in which case they would be morally right to prevent prostitution. If prostitution is legal, then a person who interferes with prostitution might consider his actions to be morally right but legally wrong.

            Animals are a tricky case because morality and law get mixed up frequently. Sometimes when someone is in the wrong for harming an animal, it is because the animal is owned by another person, so the rights being violated would be the owner’s. But if someone, such as a vegan, takes the position that animals have the moral right not to be harmed, then a person harming the animal would be wronging it by violating its moral rights. Animals can never have rights in the legal sense, as they are not participants in a legal system and can only receive protections from actual legal actors. But some people consider animals to have moral rights and others do not.

            I actually just had a conversation about ‘animal rights’ two days ago, so if you are interested in what I think on that in more depth, here are the links. The first (http://thoughtsonliberty.com/you-dont-need-a-registry-to-prevent-animal-abuse#comment-1288612282) were some of my thoughts, and the second (http://thoughtsonliberty.com/you-dont-need-a-registry-to-prevent-animal-abuse#comment-1288681909) is my discussion with one of the writers at the Thoughts on Liberty blog.

  • Cindy Phillips

    Interesting post, Andrew. I’ll be sure to read your book! My worry is the use of Feinberg’s analysis of harm doesn’t really settle anything between libertarians and non-libertarians on the issue of what justifies interference. Non-libertarians have intuitions about “wrongfulness” and “interests” that they will use to justify more cases of interference than libertarians want to allow. For example, non-libertarians might have the intuition that using heroin is indeed a set back to heroin-users’ interests even if the heroin-users are fully informed. Hence, according to them, interference is warranted. Or, for instance, non-libertarians might have the intuition that x’s failure to provide his worker y with a minimum wage at which y can meet y’s basic needs is a wrongful setback to y’s interests. Hence, according to them, interference is warranted here too.

    • Andrew

      Hi Cindy-Yep. This is why I originally didn’t have the “(or just is)” claims in the last paragraph. There is another newish book–Jethro Lieberman’s Liberalism Undressed–which defends a more standard (in the contemporary American sense) liberal view as based on the harm principle. I didn’t know about that until I was almost done with my book, but having read it, I find it intriguing and find some parts compelling. But, of course, not all. So, I think its worth considering why some would go that way with the harm principle and some (me) would not. And I think, it would be worth arguing for one reading (mine of course!) over the other. I do some of that sort of thing in the book, but not as directly as I could, having now read Lieberman. The next book may–likely will–have more of it.

  • Conza

    This approach completely entangles and dilutes the necessary distinction between legality and ethics. SMH. Also, do you make any attempt in your book to at all address the numerous Austro-Libertarians who eviscerate such a weakening approach?

    “…Legal and political theory have committed much mischief by failing to
    pinpoint physical invasion as the only human action that should be
    illegal and that justifies the use of physical violence to combat it.
    The vague concept of “harm” is substituted for the precise one of
    physical violence.[13]

    Consider the following two examples[*]. Jim is courting Susan and is just
    about to win her hand in marriage, when suddenly Bob appears on the
    scene and wins her away. Surely Bob has done great “harm” to Jim. Once a
    nonphysical-invasion sense of harm is adopted, almost any outlaw act
    might be justified. Should Jim be able to “enjoin” Bob’s very existence?[14]…
    — MNR (http://mises.org/daily/2120#2).

    [13] Thus, John Stuart Mill calls for complete freedom of individual action
    “without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do
    does not harm them.” Mill, “On Liberty,” in Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1944), p. 175. Hayek, after properly defining freedom as the absence of coercion, unfortunately fails to define coercion as physical invasion and thereby permits and justifies a wide
    range of government interference with property rights. See Murray N.
    Rothbard, “F.A. Hayek and the Concept of Coercion,” Ordo 31 (Stuttgart 1980): 43-50.

    [14] Robert Nozick appears to justify the outlawry of all voluntary exchanges that he terms “nonproductive,” which he essentially defines as a situation where A would be better off if B did not exist. For a critique of Nozick on this point, see Murray N. Rothbard, “Robert Nozick and the Immaculate Conception of the State,” Journal of Libertarian Studies (Winter 1977): 52ff.

    [*] And yes I understand this example isn’t what you are getting at, as with the other examples above… and yet what exactly is the point/benefit of attempting to adopt the vague ‘harm principle’? Marketing?

    • Andrew

      Conza-

      1. I am quite aware of the distinctions between morality, morality of law, morality of political systems, law, and politics. In my view, these are all important–especially the morality of law and politics.

      2. I don’t address Austro-Libertarians in the book; its meant to appeal to a broad audience. Its not even billed as a work of libertarianism. As with my co-bloggers, I consider myself a philosopher (or other academic) first and a libertarian second.

      3. Re: your example. Bob has not harmed Jim since he has not wronged him.

      4. I’m not sure what your point about Mill and Hayek is, but I’ll note here that I don’t know why you think coercion is only physical invasion. Indeed, it seems plainly false. We often distinguish between physical force on the one hand and coercion on the other–suggesting coercion can be something other than physical. I take it most would think that obvious. After all, if I point a gun at you and issue a command followed with “or I’ll shoot,” I do nothing physical to you but do seem to (at least be trying to) coerce you.

      5. Not sure why you bring in Nozick.

      6. The “point/benefit” of adopting the ‘harm principle’–which I do not think is vague–is that it seems to me to help get things right. To see why (and why its not vague), I guess, you’ll have to see the book.

      -Andrew

      • murali284

        Suppose Jim is already married to Susan, then it is more plausible to claim that either Bob or Susan or both have wronged Jim by cuckolding him. Even so, criminalisation of extra-marital affairs doesn’t sound particularly libertarian either.
        Be that as it may, if your account of harm depends on an account of when someone is wronged, doesn’t that mean that you need to have a prior account of when a person is wronged? It seems that it is the prior account that is doing all the work. A religious person may say that people wrong themselves when they pursue a false religion. They may also say that we wrong them when we allow them to persist living in sin.
        Given that the account of harm is subject to reasonable disagreement, it is not clear if the harm principle is the best way to publicly justify a liberal polity. Consider what the religious person may say about sin. While people disagree about sin, there is indeed a fact of the matter about whether something is indeed a sin. We cannot rely on there supposedly being a fact about X unless there is some publicly justifiable way of showing X.

        • Andrew

          Is cuckolding Jim wronging Jim? Perhaps. I suppose that may be built into the notion. But if so, and assuming Jim’s interests are actually setback (which may also be built into the notion, though I am unsure), than some sort of interference does seem warranted. It need not be interference by law.

          The notion of harm I use does, explicitly, rely on the notion of wrongfulness. I have not offered my own specific account thereof. Fortunately, most moral theories–both philosophical and religious–agree about most wrongs. Where they disagree–and those may be the most interesting cases–further discussion will be called for. I don’t see reason to believe that rational agreement is impossible.

          I suppose sin is by definition wrongful. That does not mean it involves a setback to anyone’s interests. The harm principle would disallow any interference–and require toleration–where there is non-harmful wrong. So, I am not sure what the problem is.

          I should note, though, that I am not saying we should justify a liberal polity with the harm principle. I’d rather say that a liberal polity must be in accord with the harm principle. In the end, I hope to defend the view that freedom from harm is what is of most value, that this requires a liberal polity, which is a polity that is in accord with the harm principle. But I haven’t done all of that yet.

          • murali284

            I’m pretty sure that if any one of the Abrahamic faiths are true, I have an over-riding interest in avoiding eternal damnation

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            Hey now, Jews don’t believe in eternal damnation. So if you must pick one, you can’t go wrong with that.

          • murali284

            ok fair enough. If there are things you could do that could get you eternal damnation (ED), wouldn’t being damned for eternity be a fundamental set back of one’s interests?

          • http://www.unseenobserver.com/ Seth MacLeod

            Hey, have you seen Hell? Satan and Hussein are gay lovers who go shopping for fun and joke around with the other inhabitants! What’s so bad about eternal damnation?

            More seriously: sure, if ED exists and is bad, and you can choose to do things that will avoid it, then the question is: is the cost of living an ascetic life worth the benefit of avoiding ED?

          • Andrew

            Surely Pascal was right about that much. Ascetic life & Eternal Salvation is surely worth more than great life & ED.

          • Andrew

            Surely. I gather it would not be wrongful (God would not harm you by damning you). You should avoid it, but as above, what would an all good God sentence you to eternal damnation for ?

          • Andrew

            Sure. But what would an all good God sentence you to eternal damnation for ?

          • murali284

            I don’t know, but again we are wandering into areas that cannot be settled in a society characterised by reasonable pluralism. If we go with the harm principle, questions whether even any sort of liberal polity is just depend on disputed issues about whether an omnibenevolent deity would eternally damn someone for engaging in gay sex.
            In order to get your thesis off the ground, you would either have to show how disputes about what counts as a wrongful setback of interests do not result in fundamental disputes about whether some form of liberalism is right (let alone disputes about which version of liberalism is right) or you have to say something about why the sort of perfectionist liberalism you are pushing is not paradoxical

          • Andrew

            1. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist liberal, but that term has multiple meanings.

            2. I don’t think liberalism–or any other political issue–is involved in determining “whether an omnibenevolent deity would eternally damn someone for engaging in gay sex.” That’s a separate question–one which I think hinges squarely on what it means to be benevolent. I think the answer is clear enough.

            3. I think you are gesturing at the paradox of liberalism; I discuss that in the book. See also http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/03/a-paradox-and-2-sorts-of-liberalism/

          • murali284

            It seems that the liberalism that the harm principle commits you to is a very comprehensive liberalism. Moreover, this liberalism is so comprehensive as to commit you to beliefs that many people do not seem prepared to accept. Moreover, the public reason liberalisms of Gaus or Rawls do not require such extensive commitments to particular metaphysical accounts.

          • Andrew

            Ah. Yes, I take myself to be a comprehensive liberal. Of a sort. Not the sort that says we must help people reach their telos or even help them be fully autonomous. (I’m not sure what you mean by “very comprehensive.”) There is a chapter in the book about this. And I have a lengthier piece on the topic coming out soon-ish. Sure enough, I do not go the public reason route.

          • murali284

            I suppose that the degree of comprehensiveness refers to the extent to which one has to rely on premises that cannot be justified to everyone in a pluralistic society. There are two dimensions to this. One dimension relates to the narrowness of the subgroup who will accept a given premise. The second dimension relates to the number of such independent premises. Given that a particular argument is valid, it is worse if a given premise is justifiable to a narrower subset of people and if there are more of such independent premises. Hence, the more comprehensive a liberalism is, the worse it is.

          • Andrew

            Interesting way to think about it. As it happens, there is one premise I am willing to say should be accepted by all such that I am willing to say so much the worse for those that don’t. As it happens, I also think most people accept it. So, I guess I think mine is not a “very” comprehensive liberalism. Indeed, that fits with what I say in the lengthier piece I mentioned.

          • murali284

            The extent of comprehensiveness, on my view, depends on the set of fundamental premises as a whole. After all, even if some of your fundamental premises are acceptable to all, other equally fundamental premises could be acceptable only to a few. I’ll have to read the book to see how comprehensive your liberalism is.
            On a related note, why are you a comprehensive liberal rather than a public reason liberal?

          • Andrew

            That would take too long time to answer at all well. I’ll say this: Initially, I think I thought PR liberals were simply consensus theorists through and through and giving up on defending their view is true. At the end of the day, I think some people would call my full view a version of public reason liberalism and some people would call it a version of comprehensive liberalism. It doesn’t really matter to me which it actually is–or if the distinction falls apart. If you don’t know it, you might look at Larmore’ “The Moral Basis of Political Liberalism.” I think he gets a lot right there.

          • murali284

            Thanks for the conversation

  • JdL

    I think you’re trying to say something interesting here, but it’s largely obscured by your writing style. Please consider limiting the endless use of parentheses, for starters!

    • Andrew

      The book is written with less parentheticals. I should say, though, that I don’t think it wise to never have them.

  • Christopher Morris

    Andrew,

    Standard objections to Mill’s Harm Principle often go like this:

    (a) Some harms aren’t wrongs (e.g., putting someone out of business by making a better product and selling it for less).

    (b) Some wrongs aren’t harms (e.g., “harmless trespass”).

    You handle the first kind of case by changing Mill’s principle: it only applies to wrongful harms. Ok, but then it’s no longer really a harm principle. Or, to put the point differently, do you now need a principle for determining which harms are wrongs?

    What about b? If I trespass on your land but don’t harm you — I walk across your property when you are away, leaving everything pretty much as I found it, in fact picking up a piece of trash. That’s trespass in the US, but you weren’t harmed. So that’s not a wrong? I can change the example a bit. You have a large estate and I organize camping trips on it when you are away. I make a lot of money. You are no worse off as a consequence and don’t even know about my scheme or invasion. We leave the woods as we found them. No harm. No wrong?

    I wonder if the Harm Principle, even if modified, is the way to go.

    C

    • Andrew

      Chris-

      I’m not sure your trespassing on my land isn’t a harm. Say I fence my property and put signs on the fence saying “stay out.” I’ve pretty clearly stated that it is against my interests for you to be on my property. You thus set back my interests when you trespass. if you do so wrongfully, you harm me.

      Of course, I don’t think I’ve changed the harm principle. I think Feinberg made clearer what Mill left unclear. Harms are wrongful setbacks to interests, not mere setbacks to interests (I’d call the latter “hurts”). While its true that we use the word “harm” in a more loose sense, its obviously no problem to specify its meaning more narrowly in the principle. With the narrower understanding, “wrongful harms” is redundant.

      Now should we think that I am harmed if you merely walk across my land–unfenced/unsigned–and leave it cleaner than you found it? I tend to doubt it. Same with the bigger example–assuming I have no interest in keeping you or the others off my land and assuming you left it at least as good as you found it. Far from suggesting this means we should reject the HP, I think this is exactly right.

      (Do I hear a gasp?)

      • Christopher Morris

        Yes, a big gasp. And I was trying to help you!

        To be continued some day.

        C

      • Chad Horne

        It’s hardly a libertarian position to say that I can turn someone else’s rightful behavior into a wrong merely by deciding that it goes against my interests! If my harmless trespass alone doesn’t cause harm, then the mere fact that you would rather I not do it doesn’t transform it into harm. The whole point of the harm principle is to prevent that kind of bootstrapping–to prevent people turning their preferences about how others should act into law. I’d rather you not open a competing business and lure away my customers, but…

        In this respect, I wonder if you’ve read Ripstein’s “Beyond the Harm Principle”? I’d be very interested to hear what you thought of it because I found the argument very compelling. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1138439

      • Chad Horne

        It’s hardly a libertarian position to say that I can turn someone else’s rightful behavior into a wrong merely by deciding that it goes against my interests! If my harmless trespass alone doesn’t cause harm, then the mere fact that you would rather I not do it doesn’t transform it into harm. The whole point of the harm principle is to prevent that kind of bootstrapping–to prevent people turning their preferences about how others should act into law. I’d rather you not open a competing business and lure away my customers, but…

        In this respect, I wonder if you’ve read Ripstein’s “Beyond the Harm Principle”? I’d be very interested to hear what you thought of it because I found the argument very compelling. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1138439

        • Andrew

          Chad- One does not “just decide” what interests one has. This is clearly not true in the case of life long interests (I’ve always wanted to write a book, to live in another country, etc). Its not even true in the case of more ordinary desires (I want to spend time with my child). The only cases where it would seem to hold is with fleeting desires; but I’m prepared–as is Feinberg–to say these get far less weight. As for the trespassing example: if I go through the effort of putting up fences and/or signs, that suggests I have a serious stake in not having people come on the land uninvited. So, yes, it would be a good indication that there is an interest that can be set back.

          More importantly, I think, is that there also must be wrongfulness if there is to be a harm and so warrants interference. SO, even if I have fences and a sign up. if one person has fallen down a steep hill, bumped off of some trees and then landed on my property, they may set back my interests but not wrongfully–so there is no harm to me and no warrant for interference. Similarly, if I open a business in competition with yours, I may set back your interests but not, in the normal case anyway, wrongfully. So not interference warranted.

          All of this strikes me as very much what libertarianism is. Of course, others will disagree.

          I have lead Ripstein’s article (and much of the book that came after). I like the book better than the article. I like the article in some ways, but it completely failed to persuade me. I have noted on my copy somewhere, but I’d have to dig that out to remember why.

          • Chad Horne

            I thought the harm principle was supposed to provide an objective standard of when conduct can be prohibited. Conduct can be prohibited if and only if it harms others in some objective sense. You seemed to be granting above that harmless trespass is not a harm, so it would seem to follow uncontroversially that it cannot be prohibited.

            But then you want to say that if you make a big effort to signal that you don’t want other people to act in certain ways, that somehow turns conduct that doesn’t harm you into conduct that does–it shows you have an interest there that maybe the generic person doesn’t have. So you put up a “no trespassing” sign and suddenly my harmless trespass becomes harmful? I just don’t see how that works.

            If I don’t harm Farmer Jones (who doesn’t have a “no trespassing” sign on his gate) when i stroll through his fields without his permission, how is it that I harm you just because you put up the sign? Your answer seems to be that you’ve now shown that it’s very important to you that other people stay off your land. But that answer would multiply harms endlessly.

            What if we as a community make a big show of the fact that we don’t want Catholics preaching their heresy in our town? What if we as a community put up a sign on the public water fountain that says “Whites Only”? These things may be very important to us, but so what? Freedom of religion and miscegenation are NOT objectively harmful, so regardless of how strongly we feel otherwise, the harm principle says we ought to STFU (to use a technical term). From the point of view of the harm principle, I honestly don’t see the difference between a sign prohibiting heresy or miscegenation and a sign prohibiting trespassing. If the conduct isn’t generically harmful, the mere fact that we HAPPEN to care a great deal about it (or the fact that we SIGNAL that we care a great deal about it) changes nothing.

            You can say, “well, the harm principle says we can prohibit WRONGFUL harms, and someone preaching a different faith may be harmful but it’s not wrongful.” That’s not right, though. Preaching the Catholic faith isn’t harmful, so the question of whether it’s also wrongful is irrelevant. Harmless trespass isn’t harmful, so “wrongful harmless trespass” adds nothing vis a vis the harm principle–it still doesn’t meet the necessary condition for prohibition.

            It seems to me that the situation is this: Either you can say that harmless trespass is something that can be prohibited regardless of the fact that (by definition) it doesn’t cause harm–but then you’re abandoning or going beyond the harm principle as the sole basis for criminalization. Or you have to bite the bullet and admit that harmless trespass isn’t something we can criminalize. This third way–”harmless trespass becomes a harm when I show that I don’t like it” would justify all kinds of non-liberal laws.

          • Andrew

            “Conduct can be prohibited if and only if it harms … harmless trespass is not a harm, so it would seem to follow uncontroversially that it cannot be prohibited.” Sure.

            Harms are wrongful setbacks to interests. Harmless trespass is thus–by definition–trespass that does not setback any interests. Even if you trespass on my land and destroy one of my trees it may not be a harm, say if I wanted that tree destroyed anyway–you don’t setback, but forward my interests. But, if I have a clear and stated interest that you not be on my land, you setback that interest when you trespass and it is not harmless trespass.

            But that is just about interests being setback. Harms are also–by definition–wrongful. So we have to look not only at whether an interest is setback but whether its wrongful. Hence my case in my prior response about the person landing on your property accidentally–yes they setback your interests, but they do not do so wrongfully, so they do no harm. I assume that when “Catholics preach… their heresy in our town”, they do not do so wrongfully. Hence they do no harm. Hence no interference is permitted. Etc.

            You say “Preaching the Catholic faith isn’t harmful, so the question of whether it’s also wrongful is irrelevant” but that gets things backwards on my view. Looking to see if its harmful, we look to see if it is wrongful and if it sets back any interests. If it doesn’t do both, its not harmful. Here, I think, the burden is on you to provide a better definition of “harm.”

            RE: regulation, including prohibitions: I am more and more a fan of systems that handle all harms via tort law.

          • Andrew

            “Conduct can be prohibited if and only if it harms … harmless trespass is not a harm, so it would seem to follow uncontroversially that it cannot be prohibited.” Sure.

            Harms are wrongful setbacks to interests. Harmless trespass is thus–by definition–trespass that does not setback any interests. Even if you trespass on my land and destroy one of my trees it may not be a harm, say if I wanted that tree destroyed anyway–you don’t setback, but forward my interests. But, if I have a clear and stated interest that you not be on my land, you setback that interest when you trespass and it is not harmless trespass.

            But that is just about interests being setback. Harms are also–by definition–wrongful. So we have to look not only at whether an interest is setback but whether its wrongful. Hence my case in my prior response about the person landing on your property accidentally–yes they setback your interests, but they do not do so wrongfully, so they do no harm. I assume that when “Catholics preach… their heresy in our town”, they do not do so wrongfully. Hence they do no harm. Hence no interference is permitted. Etc.

            You say “Preaching the Catholic faith isn’t harmful, so the question of whether it’s also wrongful is irrelevant” but that gets things backwards on my view. Looking to see if its harmful, we look to see if it is wrongful and if it sets back any interests. If it doesn’t do both, its not harmful. Here, I think, the burden is on you to provide a better definition of “harm.”

            RE: regulation, including prohibitions: I am more and more a fan of systems that handle all harms via tort law.

          • Chad Horne

            So would I be correct in thinking that you have a subjectivist understanding of interests, where basically anything someone does that makes me worse off by my own lights counts as “setting back my interests” for harm principle purposes? And then the only question vis-a-vis the HP is whether he did so wrongfully?

            If that’s right, then all the work is now being done by the “wrongfulness” part rather than the “interests” part, it seems to me. In fact, I would say that you don’t really capture anything specific about your view by saying that you endorse the “harm principle,” since everything really hangs on what is “wrongful” rather than harmful (or “hurtful” in your words) per se.

            Further to that, I think this kind of view rather vitiates the appeal of the harm principle. I thought the whole appeal of the harm principle was to circumvent all the intuitionistic/deontological stuff you need to build an independent standard of “wrongfulness.” All of that was supposed to be answered by an objective notion of harm as real/physical rather than felt/moral harm. Or so I thought. But that’s just my $.02.

          • Andrew

            Nope. I think its obvious that there is a subjective component to most or many interests, but I do not think it is entirely subjective. Additionally, I think that, at least in the case of children, there are ideal interests that matter (ideal interests would be entirely objective). I think this sort of view circumvents some debates; or rather, it puts them on hold. If X is a wrongful setback of interests, it can be interfered with. Great. Does that mean all questions are answered? No, of course not. In most cases, there will be quick and ready agreement about whether or not X is actually a wrongful setback of interests. Where there is not, further discussion will be required. I assume that can happen in courts if necessary with arguments on both sides considered.

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    Andrew:
    I have no specific comment to your post, other than to say that at first blush your approach to defining and understanding libertarian values seems perfectly sensible. I just want to applaud you for taking the time to respond carefully to comments, and thus to greatly enrich the discussion for all readers.

    • Andrew

      Thanks Mark! I appreciate that! (But I also know I haven’t always done it in the past and won’t always in the future!) -Andrew

  • reason60

    A few thoughts from a non-libertarian:
    The harm principle assumes a superior value to liberty, that non-libertarians don’t share. Why should our entire organizing principle be based on liberty as opposed to say, solidarity or sanctity, or a just order?

    The idea that people should be “left alone” as the default normative value is in stark contrast to lived experience.

    Don’t even libertarians crave engagement and community? Not on the romantic or emotional level, but even on the utilitarian level- libertarians want a monopoly power to enforce contracts, recognize land claims, and provide essential services like defense.

    Essentially, even the minarchists want to form a contract with their community to provide these services.

    Doesn’t the community get to negotiate this? Where is the justification to assert that the community must provide these services, but only on terms that libertarians propose?

    • Andrew

      Reason60:
      1. Disagree from the get-go. The harm principle does not assume liberty is a superior value. The harm principle leaves people free to give up or not develop their liberty should they so prefer that. For some people, I suspect, being forced to be free would be a harm–hence the harm principle rules it out (or rather makes interfering with such permissible).
      2. I’m not sure I understand where the middle part comes from. (a) Being left alone is not the same as being protected from harm. (b) Some–perhaps many–libertarians are anarchists so don’t want a monopoly power to be the protector.
      3. As for the last part: I don’t think things must be provided “on terms that libertarians propose.” I think this confuses the political with the juridical/justification. What I have offered, in far more detail in the book, is an explanation–and some defense–of what follows if we take the harm principle to be the sole principle that justifies interference, particularly by the state. That said, I am not a fan of having the community negotiate what is provided. That has proven disastrous time and time again.

      • reason60

        Isn’t the “interference” you speak of, just the community declaring its conditions by which it will provide the minimal services you ask for?
        In other words, doesn’t the community have the right to say for example, that yes, we will provide recognition of your land claim, and protect it from foreign invasion; We will adjudicate and enforce your contracts and protect your person from harm; But we will do this only if you pay certain taxes and abide by certain regulations.
        In this view, it isn’t “interference”- its you paying the price for what you receive.

        • Andrew

          Interference isn’t, I think, a community declaring anything–except in the sense that any action is expressive. Importantly, though, the reason for the interference shouldn’t be just that the community happens to want to interfere. It should be based in a justified principle (the harm principle, in my view).
          People “pay the price,” of course, but that is just to say (I think) that if the government is to do the things it is supposed to do, it must have the resources to do so. The most common way to get those resources is via taxation.

          • reason60

            I agree, any interference in someone’s life should require a justification, and the more grave and intrusive the interference, the more compelling interest there should be.

            However, limiting interference to the harm principle privileges this, sets it as the only legitimate reason and dismisses any others.

            Yet this is contrary to the desires and goals of the vast majority of citizens, who morally justify interference in many more ways.

            You are proposing that this be changed, obviously. Yet are you inviting the rest of us 300 million of weigh in and opine with our own ideas and value preferences?

            This is what I meant in my first post about you demanding services on your own terms. You do want us to engage with you, perform vital services on your behalf, yet there doesn’t seem to be a recognition of negotiation, dialogue and compromise with alternative points of view.

          • reason60

            I agree, any interference in someone’s life should require a justification, and the more grave and intrusive the interference, the more compelling interest there should be.

            However, limiting interference to the harm principle privileges this, sets it as the only legitimate reason and dismisses any others.

            Yet this is contrary to the desires and goals of the vast majority of citizens, who morally justify interference in many more ways.

            You are proposing that this be changed, obviously. Yet are you inviting the rest of us 300 million of weigh in and opine with our own ideas and value preferences?

            This is what I meant in my first post about you demanding services on your own terms. You do want us to engage with you, perform vital services on your behalf, yet there doesn’t seem to be a recognition of negotiation, dialogue and compromise with alternative points of view.

          • Andrew

            Agree completely with the first 2 paragraphs. Probably also the 3rd, though I’d like to think it was wrong. As for the question: well, I’d invite anyone and everyone to “weigh in and opine” in that I think all should seriously consider the justifications for the various principles on offer and present defenses of those they think worth defending as well as any objections to any of the principles they oppose. With those on board, we can systematically work through the arguments to see which, if any, of the possible principles withstand scrutiny. If I am right, the harm principle does and the others don’t. I readily admit I may be wrong–and in the book, I repeatedly encourage readers to come to their own conclusions. If, though, you think, we should “negotiate” in the normal sense of that word, I have no real interest in it. (I realize it may be necessary if change is to be had, but its just not what I do. I suppose I’d be happy to work with those who do if I could help get the right principles adopted and the others rejected. I’m not, of course, holding my breathe!)

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/114865618166480775623/posts Russ Abbott

    Andrew, I’m curious how taxes fit into your scheme. If we are to have government, which I gather you don’t dispute, we must (it seems) have taxes to pay for it. That would imply that government has a responsibility to see that taxes are paid. But that sort of interference doesn’t seem to fit into your harm principle as the only legitimate justification for interference. What is your position on this?

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