Aristotelian Welfare and Libertarianism Revisited

I seem to be revisiting a lot of things lately–first reparations, now this. Anyway, you may have noticed this down on the pingbacks, but there’s a long response here to my November 2 post (and exchange with Roderick) on the tensions between Aristotelianism and libertarianism. The post is called “The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems,” the blog is called Politics and Prosperity, and the author’s pen-name is Loquitur Veritatem, or truth teller. This last piece of information will come as a shock to anyone who (like me) thought Policy of Truth was the repository of all truths worth knowing.

Anyway, while I found the post interesting, I didn’t think it accurately characterized what I said in my post. The author kind of admits that:

Rather than get bogged down in the details of Khawaja’s dilemma, I will merely point out what should be obvious to him (and to millions of other true believers in this or that ethical system): Any system that optimizes on a particular desideratum (e.g., minimal coercion, maximum “social” welfare by some standard) will clash with at least one other system that optimizes a different desideratum.

However miffed I may be at the author’s refusal to join me in the bogs, I can’t disagree with the point he makes here: for any p, the more you insist on p, the less room to insist on ~p.  I just think that having bypassed the “details” of what I said, he bypasses what I said, not just in detail but in most other respects. So, considered specifically as a response to my post, I found much of what he said a set of strawmen and red herrings. If I had more time, I’d explain that claim in more detail, but I don’t. And of course, if the details didn’t matter the first time around, they might not matter this time around, either.

That said, as a discussion of issues related to my post, LV’s post has some interesting things to say. Most interesting is his challenge to the non-initiation of force principle maybe two-thirds in:

Here’s a tougher issue for libertarians (the extreme pacifists among them excluded): Does the prohibition on the initiation of force extend to preemptive self-defense against an armed thug who is clearly bent on doing harm? If it does, then libertarianism is unadulterated hogwash.

His point is that if it doesn’t, we’re led to a problem that the non-initiation principle can’t solve, from which he infers that if the principle can’t solve it, libertarianism can’t solve it (the principle being constitutive of libertarianism). So (he concludes) libertarianism faces an unsolvable dilemma, which demonstrates its defects and illustrates a defect common to all secular systems of its type: they claim to prescribe to and for us, but can’t resolve the problems generated by their prescriptions.

I don’t have time to respond to LV now (and can’t make promises for later), except to say that while it’s a fair criticism for which I have some sympathy, it’s also one that libertarians in principle have the resources to address. If so, the dilemma is not obviously unsolvable, and doesn’t demonstrate or illustrate what LV takes it to.  Of course, it’s one thing to say that and another to prove it, but for now I thought I’d leave things at the former and just draw your attention to the post.

8 thoughts on “Aristotelian Welfare and Libertarianism Revisited

  1. I don’t think the view he describes would be “unadulterated hogwash” (since I don’t think absolute pacifism is unadulterated hogwash, and that’s an even tougher position to defend). But I do think — as do nearly all libertarians — that credible, direct threats of aggression likewise count as aggression and can be met with force. That’s not just something libertarians could defend, it’s something they have defended. (See, e.g., ch. 12 of Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty.) “Non-initiation of force” has nearly always been shorthand for a somewhat more complex position.

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  2. The particular problem that he fixes on doesn’t seem particularly troublesome.

    Let’s grant that libertarianism allows for preemptive self-defense, where the potential victim (or his agent) is at liberty to decide whether preemption is warranted by the threat. Let’s grant, further, that the right of preemptive self-defense includes the right to be prepared for self-defense, because there is always the possibility of a sudden attack by a thug, armed robber, or deranged person. Thus the right to bear arms at all times, and in all places should be unrestricted (unabridged, in the language of the Second Amendment).

    Along comes Nervous Nellie, who claims that the sight of all of those armed people around her makes her fear for her life. But instead of arming herself, Nellie petitions government for the confiscation of all firearms from private persons. The granting of Nellie’s petition would constrain the ability of others to defend themselves against (a) private persons who hide their firearms successfully; (b) private persons who resort to other lethal means of attacking other persons, and (c) armed government agents who abuse their power.

    The resulting dilemma can’t be resolved by appeal to the non-aggression principle. The principle is violated if the right of self-defense is violated, and (some would argue) it is also violated if Nellie lives in fear for her life because the right of self-defense is upheld.

    There seems to be no reason why a defender of the NAP must or should agree that Nellie’s right of self-defense is violated by other people carrying firearms. There likewise seems no reason that a defender of the NAP must or should grant that a potential victim is at liberty to decide whether preemption is warranted by threat. If that means that my use of violence against people avoids violating the NAP simply because I’m afraid of them, it seems an obvious non-starter. But does anybody actually interpret the NAP that way?

    I’m not much of a fan of the NAP, but it looks to me like the most we can get out of this dilemma is a puzzle for some very naive proponents of it. I suppose the idea might ultimately be that aggression can’t be adequately defined in a way that avoids various unhappy dilemmas without appeal to some additional substantive values. It’s a bit hard to tell what LV wants to say there, though, because despite the anti-libertarian remarks in the post, he claims to be a libertarian of sorts. So presumably he doesn’t think that the NAP is constitutive of libertarianism as such.

    The post mostly seems to illustrate the ease with which highly polemical intentions can lead an author into strawmanning. I can’t see much in there that poses any trouble for your Nov. 2 post.

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  3. There likewise seems no reason that a defender of the NAP must or should grant that a potential victim is at liberty to decide whether preemption is warranted by threat. If that means that my use of violence against people avoids violating the NAP simply because I’m afraid of them, it seems an obvious non-starter. But does anybody actually interpret the NAP that way?

    I no longer have a sufficiently fine-grained knowledge of the libertarian literature (or libertarian views generally) to know how representative that view is (i.e., “a potential victim is at liberty to decide whether preemption is warranted by threat”), but I’ve certainly run into libertarians who hold it. Take a state that permits citizens to carry firearms. Many such states impose a “duty to retreat” in cases where self-defense might appear to be warranted. Many libertarians object to the very idea of a duty to retreat, and (a fortiori) to the state’s imposing or enforcing such a duty (and prosecuting violation of the laws that require it). If you defend the pro-duty-to-retreat (and pro-state-enforcement-of-the-duty-to-retreat) position in a libertarian milieu, it’s a good bet that you’ll encounter someone who insists that victims should be at liberty to decide whether pre-emption is warranted by threat.

    Put another way: on this libertarian view, the right to self-defense entails that a would-be victim has the right to the discretion required to decide whether exercise of the right to self-defense is warranted at a given time, in a given situation, given the totality of circumstances epistemically available to the agent at that time. There may be a (moral) fact of the matter whether he is right or wrong about that in a given case, but he still has the moral right to exercise his discretion free of state interference. (Of course, in the token case where he is wrong, anyone would have the right to stop him from wrongly exercising his discretion, but the point is that the state has no right to impose duties to retreat as a matter of prior legal restraint.)

    I don’t agree with this view, but it gets its plausibility from the fact that the law of assault (and self-defense) is, after all, defined in terms of the potential victim’s reasonable fear of being attacked. People vigorously disagree about the criteria of reasonability, the criteria are a matter of life and death, and cops are accorded huge discretion in a way that the rest of us are not. In the case of police officers, the discretion granted arguably is gigantic and overdrawn. In the video below, if the officer shot the guy with the tool, he might well be vindicated on the grounds that he “feared for his life.” That’s a little preposterous–actually, it’s completely fucking ridiculous–but one motivation for the libertarian view under discussion is: if cops have that level of discretion, and the stakes are so high, why don’t the rest of us have a right to the discretion that cops are automatically accorded?

    The more you reject the legitimacy of an asymmetry between cops (or the state) and the rest of us, and the more you insist on a right to stand your ground in a violent encounter, the more plausible the libertarian view (we’ve been discussing) becomes. My own view is that feasible exercise of a right to self-defense is not possible without a state’s monopoly on the use of force, and citizens’/denizens’ at least partly relinquishing a right to stand their ground in violent encounters. I’m not sure whether that makes me a mere Lockean liberal or a statist libertarian, but that’s my view.

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  4. I said I didn’t have the time to discuss this (and I don’t), but I can’t resist one more point. My real objection to LV’s argument is less a matter of getting into the weeds about the right to self-defense or guns, and more an objection to the overall form of his argument. He picks one principle, NAP, treats it as the single constitutive principle of libertarianism, then comes up with a scenario that the principle supposedly can’t resolve on its own. The form of the argument is:

    1. Assume that p, where p is a prescriptive principle.
    2. Now assume that situation S obtains (where S is a recurrent, relatively plausible circumstance), leading to problem P.
    3. Well offhand, I don’t see how p can resolve P.
    4. So p must be false.
    5. If p is the single constitutive principle of some view, that view must itself be false.

    Even apart from every other problem with this argument, it overlooks the possibility that if you conjoin p with some q, you might solve the problem. Is there any objection to conjoining p with other propositions? Not even the antecedent of (5) entails that there is one. So the normative “shallowness” that LV complains about is a shallowness of his own creation. Yes, if you take any one principle on its own, and assiduously refuse to conjoin it with any other belief, you’ll get the impression that the principle is problematic. But why do that?

    In fairness to him, a libertarian would then be obliged to adduce some q to conjoin with p (or give p content in a way that amounts to the same thing). And there are libertarians out there who will wield NAP as though it was a magical totem that solved all problems. But there are other kinds of libertarians, too. LV writes about these others as though their existence proves that libertarianism is internally inconsistent, but another explanation for the same fact is that some versions are more sophisticated than others, and the sophisticated versions contradict the less so. That’s as true of non-secular systems as of secular ones: the village theist’s views will contradict more sophisticated ones. So while there’s some interest in LV’s post, there’s also some triviality.

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    • I pedantically complain: “loquitur veritatem” doesn’t mean “truth teller.” It’s a sentence with the main verb in the 3rd person singular present active indicative, “[he, she, or it] speaks the truth.”

      Truth-teller would be, succinctly, “locutor veritatis,” or, at greater length “qui loquitur veritatem,” more lit. “(the one) who speaks the truth”. The longer, relative clause version appears in the Vulgate Psalms, which may be where our LV got the words; but in that case the qui is a necessary part of the noun phrase, not something that can be dropped without essentially changing the syntax and the meaning.

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      • Here’s the substantive comment that had to be cut-off by the needs of morning commuting time: as best I can tell, it seems that LV wants to run the dialectic this way — if there is any auxiliary q that is going to be conjoined with p (in order to resolve the difficulty P), then (1) q must be another, independent ethical premise besides p; (2) for q to get its ethical force, it has to specify another ethical value VAL(q), which could settle the set of decisions that cannot be settled solely by appeal to VAL(p); and (3) if so, you’ve given up on a one-value “ethical system,” in favor of a system that sticks you on the earlier horn of the dilemma, by producing inevitable tragic conflicts whenever optimizing for VAL(p) conflicts with optimizing for VAL(q).

        If that is how it’s supposed to go, though, I don’t know what would license (1) (not all auxiliary premises in an ethical argument need to be ethical principles; it’s not obvious to me that what’s needed in the Man Called Jayne / Nervous Nelly conflict is particularly ethical in nature, if you think the needed premise is just something like “objectively, Nervous Nelly is not in a lot of danger”). If we grant (1), I don’t know what would license (2) (there are lots of kinds of prescriptive force; not all have to do with optimizing for a value; e.g., “self-defense is properly justified by a reasonable-person standard” or “is properly justified by an objective-danger standard” or whatever is not proposing an additional value to optimize). If we grant (1) and (2), it’s not clear why that’s an objection to anything in particular — maybe sometimes there are deep conflicts between values. If so, well, maybe ethics is hard. I don’t know why any of this would pose an especial problem for secular ethical reasoning that religious beliefs, traditions, revelations, or whatever it is would be obviously very relevant to solving.

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  5. Pingback: Police Tailgating and Entrapment Revisited | Policy of Truth

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