If It Is Immoral for Me to Sleep with Your Wife...

it doesn't suddenly become moral when you sleep with her.

A very stupid argument, right?

And yet I see anarchists forwarding essentially the same argument again and again: If it would be immoral for you to do X as a private citizen, it doesn't suddenly become moral when the state does it.

The thrust of the argument is that social roles should have no effect on our evaluation of an action... which is obviously complete nonsense. Otherwise, if it is immoral for me to break into your house, then it would be immoral for you to do so as well. If it is immoral for me to shut a stranger in a room, then it must be immoral for a parent to send a child to his room as well. If it is immoral for a student to alter another student's grade, then it must be immoral for the teacher to do so as well.

Not all of what we may properly do depends on our social roles, but much does. That certainly does not mean everything, or even anything, the state does is OK. But the notion that a change in social role cannot possibly affect the morality of an action is laughable.

16 comments:

  1. Michael Huemer wrote a book, _The Problem of Political Authority_, responding to this argument. The problem is that you need a good reason why government has special rights that other people don't. Huemer argues that none of the attempts to do so work--you might find it worth reading the book, and seeing if you can rebut his argument against whatever version you believe in.

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  2. In fact, this argument should (IMHO) actually be the definition of the state. The state is that authority which can use coercion in settings, or for goals, that would be illegal for private citizens.

    (To be fair, I am trying to paraphrase David Friedman here, so I should acknowledge David, though he should not be blamed if I got him wrong).

    Then, it is fair to ask if the state should exist. But taking this approach avoids the problem that Callahan (rightly, I think) criticizes. The case is NOT prima facie. You would have to give a good reason why the state should have this power that private citizens do not have, but it is at least POSSIBLE that such a good reason might exist.

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    1. Need to distinguish *legal* authority from *moral* authority. And we certainly do not think that only 'The State' is the only entity with the moral authority to use coercion for certain goals in certain settings (e.g., parental authority), so need an additional criterion.

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  3. David Friedman, don't bother with Gene. He pulled this same stunt with the minimum wage argument. "If we stop at stage 2 in the argument, the libertarians look like morons. QED."

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    1. Someone had posted that exact argument this morning on Facebook, with no steps beyond step two whatsoever. If someone has a better argument that has a step three in it, why does that make my refuting of an argument that stops with step two invalid? You do notice that Mike Munger understood this point very well?

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  4. I shouldn't have said "stunt." But let me try it like this:

    Suppose an antiwar activist says, "It's really not right, what we're doing over in the Middle East. Imagine if some foreign power dropped a bomb on *your* kid at a wedding feast. How would *you* feel?"

    I think you just proved that this is a terrible con, Gene, and that antiwar activists should stop making such illogical rhetorical moves.

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    1. "It's really not right, what we're doing over in the Middle East. Imagine if some foreign power dropped a bomb on *your* kid at a wedding feast. How would *you* feel?"

      Huh? This is an emotional appeal. I have seen what I critiqued presented as an ARGUMENT.

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    2. OK... An antiwar activist says, on Facebook,

      "We can all agree that it would be wrong for the police to start blowing up houses in Boston, hoping to take out the guy who planted to bomb at the marathon, right? Well by the same token, it's wrong to do that in the Middle East."

      Then you write a quick blog post pointing out what a ridiculous argument this is, and end your thought there, your task accomplished.

      Right?

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    3. Not seeing the analogy at all, Bob. The US government is the SAME social role in both cases.

      Think about it: "We can all agree that it would be wrong for someone who doesn't own a building to blow it up, right? Well by the same token, it's wrong for someone who does own it to blow it up."

      That really IS a stupid argument, while your "version" isn't at all. Perhaps you might contemplate the difference.

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    4. Gene, this is an unsatisfactory use of the moral value and metaphysical status of "social roles," particularly considering your emphasis in the past on "abstraction" and its reality-distorting effects. An anarchist could easily respond, e.g, that certain social roles are morally valuable while others are not, that certain social roles are morally valuable under certain conditions (voluntary, informed) and devoid of value when those conditions fail to obtain; that intimacy, personal interactions, and reflective affirmation of particular relationships give rise to the mutual associative responsibilities and moral value of many/most social roles, while formal pronunciations of "status" lack moral worth all together. The contemporary western marital relation is partially constituted by its voluntary character, and it is seen to lose not only its moral value but also its status qua genuine relationship in the absence of such consensual acts. The anarchist could also deny any monolithic account of "social roles," claiming instead that all social roles are importantly constituted by the particular agent inhabiting them, given the unique perspective and unique constellation of roles that every agents brings to the table.

      Given your philosophical outlook, we are not going to agree on the moral status of social roles, so I do not plan on debating such a difficult issue here in the comments on your blog. That being said, I do feel compelled to chime in: there are tons of examples of liberal moral/political theorists who find a central place for social roles in their respective philosophies yet reject such an easy route to political authority (Joseph Raz and Leslie Green immediately to mind).

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    5. Oy, Hume, I thought you were a philosopher!

      I post: a is a bad argument for x.

      You come back:
      1) But look, if I add b and c, then a + b + c might be a good argument for x!
      ("An anarchist could easily respond, e.g, that certain social roles are morally valuable while others are not, that certain social roles are morally valuable under certain conditions")

      2) And anyway, just because a is a bad argument for x, that doesn't prove not-a.
      ("such an easy route to political authority")

      Did you really not notice that I wrote: "That certainly does not mean everything, or even *anything*, the state does is OK."

      This was not a "route to political authority," easy or not. What in the world made you think it was, especially when I *very specifically pointed out* it was not?

      It was a critique of a bad argument. Period.

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    6. My apologies for reading something more into your comment.

      I would like to point out that the anarchist claim vis-a-vis private subjects and "the state" does not entail that "social roles should have no effect on our evaluation of an action." It is a particular claim.

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    7. It implies it though, at least in the bare-bones form I happened to see that day.

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  5. Gene, c'mon man, you really have to try harder to see how this works. Look:

    I saw a guy on FB this morning arguing, "We can all agree that it would be wrong for the police to start blowing up houses in Boston, hoping to take out the guy who planted to bomb at the marathon, right? Well by the same token, it's wrong to do that in the Middle East."

    But this is absolutely ridiculous. It simply ASSUMES that the rules governing proper US government policy toward people in Boston are the same thing as those applying to its policies toward people in the Middle East. Let's see how well that smuggled-in assumption fares, if I change the scenario:

    ==> Adults in Boston would be upset if their votes for the US president in 2016 were ruled inadmissible. So by the same token, we should let the adults in Kabul cast their vote for the US president in 2016.

    See how dumb that is? Yet that was the underlying premise of my FB friend, opposing blowing up wedding parties as we hunt terrorists in the Middle East. These people trying to use "arguments" to get us to "think about what we're really doing over there" need to try harder.

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    1. Beleive me, Bob, I see exactly how it works: this is a slogan. Its purposes is not to "get people thinking," but to short-circuit thought and hold the "party" together. It functions the same way a neocon slogan like "So, you're saying the 9/11 victims deserved to die?" or a left-liberal slogan like "Conservatives hate the poor" do.

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  6. "==> Adults in Boston would be upset if their votes for the US president in 2016 were ruled inadmissible. So by the same token, we should let the adults in Kabul cast their vote for the US president in 2016."

    Both arguments rely on hidden premises (it's facebook, to be expected). The analogy to elections is misleading, however, because the implicit premises regarding foreign policy (the value of innocent life is not determined by political boundaries, government should always respect the value of innocent life, etc.) are much more intuitively plausible than the implicit premises regarding U.S. political elections (anyone who is "upset that their votes ... were ruled inadmissible" has a moral right to vote in elections, etc). No need to be uncharitable and difficult, particularly because of the compelling need for justification regarding the former and not the latter.

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