It's All or Nothing!

Aristotle taught us that the art of politics consists in knowing how to balance the "admitted goods" of the polity, one against another, so as to best promote the flourishing of its members.  This is a tricky matter, calling for experience and judgment. How much simpler if one can forgo any balancing, and declare only one type of good -- equality, property rights, productivity, scientific advancement, military readiness, etc. etc. -- to be a true good at all, and create a politics that makes the pursuit of that good absolute and ignores every other one! This leads to an all or nothing attitude: if there is any compromise in pursuit of the supreme good, then all is lost!

For example, here Ryan Wills looks at my first blog post on obligations. (Funny, unlike some people, Ryan had no trouble figuring out just what I was talking about!) Now, I don't mean to pick on Ryan: he has seemed like a very decent fellow when he has come around here to comment. But he displays the tendency of which I wish to speak very clearly in this post, so, with apologies, let me proceed.

Ryan begins by accusing me of misunderstanding the scope of libertarianism: "Libertarianism, in the strictly political sense, is concerned with justice and the (property) rights that govern it."

Ryan here is stating the very problem I was noting as though it were something I had overlooked! The problem with libertarianism, I was suggesting, is precisely that it thinks justice is only about property rights. They are a part of justice, but just a part.

"While I'll offer that, in order to claim ANY rights outside of property rights you must dismantle property rights altogether..."

Well, what can one say to this other than, "You're political ideology has made you somewhat mad"? (Ryan, I don't doubt you're as sane as most -- and saner than me! -- when it comes to not seeing purple elephants, holding down a job, etc. This is a very specific madness.) If we say someone has a legal obligation to help someone in mortal danger when the person is right in front of them, there is no one better positioned to help, and there is no risk to the rescuer, then... That's it? That person no longer owns their home or their car?

"Let's say that we all have a positive right to be saved. Well, we can go ahead and throw self-ownership and property rights in general out the window at that point - as clearly if there are stipulations and conditions to such rights, then they are not truly rights at all in any real sense, but rather individual privileges bestowed upon us by some exogenous authority."

Again, we have madness posing as thought. ALL rights anywhere ever have had stipulations and conditions on them, as they always must. The right to free speech famously does not extend to the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But to Ryan, that condition "throws that right out the window": not being able to start a stampede that might kill people is exactly the same as the total censorship that existed in the USSR.

"then extrapolate the drowning child analogy into its intended application through the polity."

Intended by whom? By the strawman builder, that's whom.

"It seems like such a principle would call us to give as long as one needs. But the world isn't a pond with a single drowning child. The world is a pond with hundreds of millions of "drowning children" and we are billions of passersby. As I type this, thousands upon thousands of people are dying from starvation and disease. I could be using this time, marginally, to save them. Am I guilty of injustice? Should I be punished? Should I be locked away in a cage?

"And this is where things stop making sense..."

Well, all-or-nothing thinking makes it very hard to make sense of much of the real world, I grant you. For instance, it can make you believe nutty things like having a very limited obligation to help very specific people in very specific circumstances is exactly the same as having an unlimited obligation to help all people in all circumstances.


  1. Anonymous6:06 PM

    I'm curious to know, as Bob was here, why you believe a “legal obligation to help someone in mortal danger” is a moral requirement. Note: I’m not asking why you think there is a general moral obligation to do so, I’m asking why you think there should be a *legal* (enforceable) obligation to do so. Considering a case like your callous opera fan there are many methods of libertarian-compatible punishment that could be very harsh. As Bob notes, “Nobody ever has to talk to the guy again, he can be fired from his job, people can even refuse to sell him food. It would effectively be a death sentence[.]” Are these methods simply insufficient to meet the demands of properly understood justice? Are they impractical, i.e. you think they would never actually be enforced? Is it not *really* punishment until he's forced to provide compulsory fines, suffer imprisonment, etc.?

    You seem to want to paint “strict libertarianism” as having to reject any kind of punishment, where I see your disagreement is really about the proper method of punishment. Tell me where you think I’m misrepresenting you.

  2. "It would effectively be a death sentence..."

    So a libertarian death sentence is non-coercive, while if the state fines the guy that is? This is a very curious line I've seen libertarians take several times: These state punishments are cruel and immoral, and anyway we could punish the guy far more brutally without a state!

    Why should anyone diassemble the state in favor of this death by social consensus?

  3. Anonymous3:30 PM

    Via Bob's quote, I was simply pointing to a range of potential punishment responses that a strict libertarian could consistently sign onto. I wasn't trying to claim a death sentence would be a truly just punishment. I have a hard time thinking it would be.

    To try again, in your Obligation II post, you claim that since a strict libertarian could not agree with you that the callous opera fan's offense should be legally punishable, strict libertarianism is mistaken. Maybe it is mistaken; but, why do you feel a (legal) enforceable obligation is a moral requirement in this case? Your tone implies this is obvious, but I’m not seeing it.

    He has certainly failed to uphold a general moral obligation to provide aid. He should probably be punished in some way. But, strict libertarianism allows for a very wide range of punishment options from slight to severe. So, why do you feel that legal punishment has to be the response? Is it because there’s not true justice without it? Are you skeptical as to how reliable libertarian punishments would be in practice?

    Or, are you merely saying something like: C’mon, libertarians, you’re so caught up in your ideology you’re not even putting a monetary fine on the list of potential punishments? Your ideology is foolishly restricting options before weighing all of the pertinent information needed to inform justice!
    Are any of these close?

  4. "Your tone implies this is obvious, but I’m not seeing it."

    Jeff, I wasn't saying this was obvious or even trying to argue for it in that post -- I was just pointing out a distinction between my position and the libertarian one. For a defense of my position, see Alasdair MacIntyre, _Rational Dependent Animals_.

  5. Dr. Callahan, thank you for the thoughtful reply to my blog post. My blog is more generally a personal repository for whatever I might be thinking at the moment. I don't really push other people to read it as it's just a collection of personal thoughts of sorts; rough as it may be. So I apologize for not being as clear as concise in said post as I probably could have been. But I'm flattered that you happened to read it as, even though I often disagree with you, I have a great deal of respect for you. I've made a subsequent post addressing some of the issues you had raised.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Central Planning Works!

Fiat Currency