Bryan Caplan  

Bill Dickens vs. Me on Huemer

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I've been having an extended Facebook argument with Bill Dickens about Mike Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority.  To be fair, Bill is only responding to Huemer's piece on Cato Unbound, not the actual book, which he has not read.  Our argument so far, reprinted with Bill's permission:

Bill: I am not at all impressed. He buys the Friedman vision of private competing security companies and argues that they would eschew violence because it is too costly. Nonsense. The exact same argument can be made about governments -- all the more so of autocratic governments which might reasonably be viewed as operating to maximize the wealth of their primary constituency -- and that has worked well hasn't it?

As for the rationale for the state, again I'm unimpressed. He assumes that individuals have "rights" and then asks why the state can take them away. One could reverse the argument just as easily. Why shouldn't a system that provides a better outcome for most people be preferred over one that does not? Rights are simply part of the package that the preferable system allows for. I happen to like systems that decide their nature more or less democratically and have no trouble with the vast majority of the authority states reserve for themselves. Your mileage may vary, but don't try to convince me with arguments about "rights." The consequences of the system matter first and foremost.


Me:
@Bill - I wouldn't expect you to find Huemer's defense of the practicality of anarchism persuasive (though he does anticipate your complaints). Indeed, for the sake of argument I'd be happy to agree with your first paragraph.

It's your second paragraph that I'd like to persuade you to rethink. You say that "consequences of the system matter first and foremost." But in our previous discussions, you've often backed away from consequentialist conclusions.

Textbook case: Unless I deeply misunderstand you, you think it would be wrong for five people who need organs to murder a healthy stranger to save themselves. And I think you'd still say it was wrong if the six of you voted and you lost 5:1.

Or consider something less hypothetical: I've gathered that you are pro-choice. On consequentialist grounds, this is very hard to defend: You're weighing nine months of unwanted pregnancy against a person's life. If you invoke a woman's "right to her own body," or anything along those lines, you're not being a consequentialist anymore.

My question: Why do you claim to be a consequentialist, then make a bunch of ad hoc exceptions, instead of fixing your overall moral theory to fit what you actually think??? This is just what Huemer's book tries to do. And as Perry says, Huemer starts with simple moral intuitions you probably already hold, not anything controversial like absolute rights to X.


Bill: You are right that in the past I have been unwilling to embrace some of the consequences of consequentialist thought, but I'm moving more in that direction rather than towards embracing rights. So for your two examples, if there are five people alone on a desert island with a surgeon and an operating room and four of them decide to take the organs of the fifth as the only way that two of them can live I'm down with that. On abortion I don't believe that someone counts fully in the moral calculus until they are a fully formed human. Morality is about how we interact with each other. Whether more or fewer people is a good thing is something I don't have any moral intuition about and I'm not persuaded by any of the arguments I've heard one way or the other.

If the argument is based on moral intuitions then it seems even less coherent. I have not read the book yet (@Perry you are right about that), but tell me how does he convince you that moral intuitions about individual rights trump intuitions about collective good?


Me:
  @Bill - If you want me to bring out the big guns, let me point out that if consequentialism is true, you should give away the vast majority of your wealth to absolutely poor people forthwith. And also start working far more hours to increase your donations. Are you evil for failing to do so?

A common reply is that consequentialism is a social ethic, not a personal ethic. But it's hard to make sense of that. If no particular person is morally obliged to maximize the goodness of consequences, the social ethic is empty.

Two methodological points intended to raise the level of future discussion:

1. Saying "Anyone can play this game" is to philosophy as saying "You can prove anything with statistics" is to economics. Both moral hypotheticals and data analysis are fallible and subject to abuse. But they're also our only path to truth in their respective domains. (BTW, Bill, you're the last person to ever hear me say "You can prove anything with statistics." You pointed out how silly it was and I stopped doing it).

2. Saying, "I'm perfectly happy with X" or "I happen to like system X" is unhelpful in a moral argument. One major point of moral argument is to jolt people out of complacent satisfaction with morally unjustified behavior.


Bill: @Bryan Yup, that is the big gun. I don't run from it. As I said I'm tending more towards consequentialist positions. I didn' that I have embraced every single conclusion. I'll admit I'm still inconsistent on that one.

Bill: 1. I don't think that I was doing what you think I was doing. I wasn't objecting to the use of hypotheticals, I was objecting to the whole method of taking intuitions formed in one context into another in a way that tends to make people see things from a libertarian perspective. My point wasn't that Huemer shouldn't use hypotheticals but that moving moral intuitions out of context is a poor way to make a case when the same method can be used in reverse. The method impresses me as a cheap parlor trick rather than a serious argument. Something that only someone who didn't reflect for a minute would fall for. I'm surprised (and am somewhat skeptical of my own judgement) since you take it so seriously. Maybe Huemer is more even handed in his book, but in the article he isn't acknowledging that he is stuffing the rabbit into the hat before he pulls it out. I would be much more impressed with an evenhanded exploration of the method that points out what it is doing and tries to see whether there are any conclusions that are robust to circumstances. Or whether there were particularly good situations for thinking about moral questions. That would be interesting.
2. I don't see where I said I was perfectly happy with a system except in response to Zac saying that I had to prove something to him. In general, my reaction to people trying to shift the burden of proof to me to defend the status quo is to do that. There are lots of reasons to give the status quo the benefit of the doubt. I acknowledge that when I'm arguing against it.

With respect to the big gun, Even though I admit to being an inconsistent consequentialist, that is only because I don't have the time right now to think through a moral intuition I have about the appropriateness of saying that consequentialist thought should drive social action, but that there are limits of its applicability to individuals. Till I do that I have to admit that my not giving away everything I own up to the point where I'm as poor as the poorest may well be immoral.


Me: @Bill - My friend, we've argued about the implausible implications of consequentialism for two decades now. When I bring out the big guns, you seem to concede their force but plead lack of time to duly ponder them. Given the centrality of the issue, though, shouldn't you *make* time to duly ponder them? After all, virtually all of your policy views seem to hinge on this issue.

In the book, Huemer is indeed very even-handed. As I think I told you, it's the *only* book about libertarian political philosophy I am proud to recommend to you. However, doing what you call "moving moral intuitions out of context" is much more than a parlor trick. It's one of the best ways of counter-acting status quo bias and myside bias.

Imagine having a moral argument with a typical Israeli and a typical Palestinian. If you want a remotely constructive conversation, you'd have to get them to discuss analogous situations with unfamiliar or neutral team names attached.

The same goes for moral arguments about virtually any controversial political issue.



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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Julien Couvreur writes:

@Bill, "taking intuitions formed in one context into another" may be improper as you suggest. But at least such exceptions deserve an explanation.

What is special about government which gives it this special status?
What makes it differ from our day-to-day understanding of morality?
This is the core issue which Huemer is trying to get to.

Ritwik writes:

1. "If you want me to bring out the big guns, let me point out that if consequentialism is true, you should give away the vast majority of your wealth to absolutely poor people forthwith. And also start working far more hours to increase your donations. Are you evil for failing to do so"

Single period consequentialism vs multi-period or continuous time consequentialism. Weight placed on myself vs weight placed on distant people. Marginal product of my labour. In the aggregate, income adjusts. Removal of poverty vs other productive uses of my wealth.

A thousand other defences.

Not sure why you think this is a big gun. It's a remarkably weak pea shooter.

James writes:

Dickens seems to think that he has refuted Huemer's argument just by identifying it. Yes, Huemer is taking moral intuitions from one context and applying them in another, but that's his basic argument and Dickens fails to even explain why this is a problem.

In order to defend the governments of the world from Huemer's argument, all Dickens needs to do is demonstrate that some acts of violence are morally permissible if and only if committed by a government and the acts of violence committed by actual governments conform to this set of special cases. This ought to be easy.

Hume writes:

All of your moral intuitions developed within the framework of a legal-political order. Ethical intuitionism is even less plausible metaethical view in the realm of political morality then morality simpliciter. Perhaps all of your moral intuitions presuppose a context characterized by the relative stability and reciprocal assurance provided by coercive institutions.

David Friedman writes:

You might point out to Bill that the question of why one would expect private rights enforcement agencies to be less violent than governments is one I discussed in The Machinery of Freedom about forty years ago. He might not find my argument convincing, but if he want to at least know what it is he can download the pdf of the book from my web page.

Motoko writes:

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Infopractical writes:

"let me point out that if consequentialism is true, you should give away the vast majority of your wealth to absolutely poor people forthwith."

Perhaps there is additional context I missed or am not privy to, but this statement strikes me as simply wrong. Is there some reason that egoism has been removed or that traditional utilitarianism is assumed to be the only consequentialist theory worth talking about? In a relatively libertarian blog?

Ken B writes:

I think I can make a very strong pro-choice argument on consequentialist grounds. I never rely on "my body my choice"; in fact I think that a very weak argument.

First I reject Bryan's contention that a person's whole life is at stake. There is, in the early stages, no person.

That leaves us mostly with consequences -- for the woman, the sire, and the rest of us. Some are obvious, but some are not. Consider for example just the level of state power required to actually enforce anti-abortion laws if we are serious about it. Regular preganancy testing, regular searches for abortifacients, fetal heart monitors. These are consequentialist arguments aren't they?

Ken B writes:

@Ritwik: It's a big gun because if the only morally relevant consideration is consequences I am being immoral right now posting this rather than feeding the hungty, and you are being immoral reading it rather than building shelters for the homeless. So it seems that even those of us with a consequentialist bent consider other factors.

Seth writes:

"Why shouldn't a system that provides a better outcome for most people be preferred over one that does not?" -Bill Dickens

The problem is it's difficult to know that a system provides a better outcome than another system. Most arguments for or against are about fictional worlds, not this one.

"I happen to like systems that decide their nature more or less democratically..."

I happen to like systems that do not negatively impact myself and others if Bill Dickens happens to be wrong. Bill Dickens is human, is he not? He is fallible like the rest of us.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bryan,
With the exception of the deficiency noted by Ken B, very nicely done.

Jeff writes:
So for your two examples, if there are five people alone on a desert island with a surgeon and an operating room and four of them decide to take the organs of the fifth as the only way that two of them can live I'm down with that.

What if Bill Dickens happened to be that fifth guy? Would he happily sacrifice his own life for the sake of the others? I'm skeptical, because hardly anyone does anything like this in real life except (sometimes) for close family members, so the Desert Island Surgeon scenario is almost unnecessary.

Dickens acknowledges that his own consequentialist views suggest he should be working very hard and giving away almost all his money, but he doesn't do this (or, I'm guessing, anything close to it), so I doubt he'd be too keen to give away his organs, either. The disconnect between his stated beliefs and whatever unstated beliefs determine his actions appears to be pretty wide.

Tom West writes:

I think the moral intuition of consequentialists tends to be maximizing the sum of happiness with a *significant* subtraction for massively lowering any individual's happiness.

i.e. No selling one person's organs for five other people, but perhaps eminent domain to allow a power line that powers tens of thousands. That, and despite the distress we see here here, most people don't spend significant portions of their lives agonizing over the taxes they pay, but forcing someone into full-time slavery regardless of the total beneficial outcome is off the table.

Brian writes:

Ken B (and David),

No, Bryan is right. There's no way to make a consequentialist argument in favor of abortion, at least in the vast majority of cases. And the issue of whether an unborn human is a person or not is irrelevant to the argument.

Consequentialism defines morality on the basis of outcomes only. The question, then, is whether having the baby or not having a baby is a better outcome. Evolution has already answered that question. Even though babies are costly to raise, they provide a net gain. If they didn't, our species wouldn't be here. And not only do they provide a net gain, they provide a HUGE gain. Over the course of their lifetimes, people on average produce much more than they consume. Therefore, from a consequentialist perspective, abortion is (almost) always the less optimal choice and therefore not permitted.

The exceptions to this would be rare. For example, if the mother's life is at risk, failure to perform the abortion would prevent her from having more in the future. In that case, the better option is abort now and live to procreate later. But that's just a standard life-of-the-mother exception, agreed to by even the most ardent foes of abortion.

As far as factoring other costs goes, it's easy to show that they are minor and therefore inconsequential in calculating the outcome. Enforcement is costly, yes, but does it cost more than the value added by each baby? Not a chance. Besides, saying that abortion is unjustified from a consequentialist perspective does not REQUIRE that abortion be made illegal. Maximizing outcomes on either the individual or societal level has no intrinsic connection with governmental action (government is a tool that either may or may not be used), so it is not valid to factor in the cost of enforcement as an intrinsic drain on the outcome. That is, whether to enforce or not is a separate decision from whether to abort.

Finally, more generally, Bryan's point about consequentialists having to give away all they own to the poor is almost right. Helping the poor not be poor is a better outcome, and therefore required of the consequentialist. That's why people like Mother Theresa, who did just that, are held in such high moral esteem. But such an action can go too far. Giving away EVERYTHING and thereby starving yourself would not be an optimal outcome. And using your resoruces to create economic growth might be even better than simply giving everything away.

The bottom line is that consequentialism is not as nutty as everyone thinks. Not only does it work generally, but it sometimes has surprising but reasonable consequences (like implying that abortion is usually immoral).

Matt Skene writes:

I'm not sure I understand what Bill Dickens means when he says that the intuitions are being taken out of one context and put into another because I'm not at all clear on what the relevant contexts are. My best guess is that it's supposed to be the contexts of inter-personal situations and of political situations. If that's so, I'm not really clear on what he thinks a state is, or what he thinks a political context is. States consist in the activities of individuals. They consist in lots of actions, but the actions don't collective create a new type of morally relevant entity. Maybe adding lots of people or an agreement by some of those people them to follow certain rules and impose them on others changes the situation to a new moral context, but I don't see how, and I don't know what that context consists in.

In fact, I think one way to view Huemer's conclusion of the first six chapters of his book is that there is no such thing as a political context that exist independently of the actions of individuals, and so the idea that special moral considerations apply to such a context is an illusion. In the absence of some good reason to think that societies or states or political interactions consist in something other than a bunch of individual actions, I can't see why we should think that we are moving from one moral context to another when we start talking about politics. We're still just discussing how people should behave when faced with certain situations. If we aren't moving to a new context, then the same intuitions should still apply to political action.

James writes:

This context stuff is made extra silly by the fact that Dickens et al take it as given that it's on them to determine where one context ends and another begins. Dickens may believe that a morally unique context arises when some people start calling themselves a government, but he can't assume it as a means to proving it.

All of Dickens' beliefs and intuitions, moral and otherwise, formed within the context known as "the past." Is he skipping context whenever he makes claims relevant to the present and future?

sourcreamus writes:

The fetus is at some point not yet a human life and at some point a human life. There is no non-arbtrary way to decide exactly when the transition occurs. Therefore, a consequentialist would have to be anti-abortion since the consequences of making a mistake and killing a human beingare so much worse than the cconsequences of protecting a pre human. Unless they can find a fool proof way of determining exactly when the transition occurs.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

some acts of violence are morally permissible if and only if committed by a government

Hanging a murderer after giving him a chance to defend himself.

An individual or a group of individuals may not punish an offender. You may not pursue a thief to his house and beat him up.

Punishment is a precise word. You may recover your property, even violently, but any retribution belongs to the State.

David Friedman writes:

Brian writes:

"Evolution has already answered that question. Even though babies are costly to raise, they provide a net gain. If they didn't, our species wouldn't be here."

You are confusing utility, or some other normative concept, with reproductive success. The fact that evolution selects for some characteristic means that that characteristic increases the reproductive success of its carrier, not that it is good. It does not even mean that the characteristic is good for the species, since individual reproductive success may lead to characteristics that make the species less successful.

I am curious whether you believe that it is obviously right for everyone to have as many children as he is capable of producing, rearing to adulthood, and educating well enough so that they can in turn produce and rear children. That is, after all, the behavior selected for by evolution.

Ritwik writes:

Ken B

"It's a big gun because if the only morally relevant consideration is consequences I am being immoral right now posting this rather than feeding the hungry, and you are being immoral reading it rather than building shelters for the homeless"

My utility, your utility.

Further, I may not be particularly good at building shelters for the homeless. I may, however, be quite good at assimilating views, engaging in my intellectual development, which helps me make money/ make policy, that those who are good at building shelters for the homeless can use.

Even further, if all of us focused on giving wealth away, where does that wealth come from itself? I know I'm saying very basic things. And that's precisely my point. For very basic dynamic reasons, the kind of challenge that Bryan puts out is mistaken and we have moved to finer grained debates which operate within the broader context of consequentialism.

Point is not that consequentialism does not *break*. Subject to enough pressure, all philosophies do.

Point simply is that the specific question posed is quite trivially answered.

FWIW, I am (obviously) a utilitarian, but I quite like Bryan's views on intuitionism, not the least because they provide a way to test whether the specific aggregation that we are engaging in crumbles at the slightest challenge or is robust. Also, am willing to admit values beyond utility important for a political system. Justice is the big one. (Justice, not rights)

It's just that I find these attempts to bring down the broad edifice of utilitarian thought through clever redistribution type questions rather trivial - akin to re-inventing a square wheel.

Ken B writes:

Brian:

Consequentialism defines morality on the basis of outcomes only. The question, then, is whether having the baby or not having a baby is a better outcome.

The birth of the baby is not the only consequence. And the question isn't whether to have an abortion but whether to forbid an abortion.

Ken B writes:

Ritwik:

My utility, your utility.

I think you have just shown how big a gun the big gun is. What moral decision can you not justify that way?

Ricardo writes:

@sourcreamus: Your first sentence is not universally accepted, so I recommend prefixing with "Suppose that". Otherwise, good analysis, since I suspect many people make exactly that supposition.

sourcreamus writes:

Everyone agrees that a fetus is a person at some point, though I suppose you mean that some people put that point at birth. That is an abitrary distinction as well. What is the rationale behind treating a premature birth at six months and needs round the clock medical care to survive differently than a fetus who is nine months and two weeks old and could survive with no more care than a newborn baby typically receives if removed from the mother?

Ken B writes:

I must say the anti-consequentialists here, or perhaps just the anti-abortionists, take a very peculiar view of what counts as a consequence. I have already mentioned this in regard to Brian but he is not alone ion this. Consider sourcreamus's comment. He seems to deny we can apply judgments of likelihood here, but we do that all the time in making laws. Or indeed almost every moral decision; we judge oprgan donor programs on the basis of our expectations for example.

Changes in laws, legal protections, the powers of the state, the lives of affected parties, these are all consequences.

Ritwik writes:

Ken

It is not an argument about my utility being *arbitrarily* greater than everyone else's so that any decision is trivially justifiable.

It is about the fact that my utility is not zero, especially not at all margins.

And then from there on the argument changes into what kind of a tax and redistribute system do we want, given dynamic considerations. And that's a much more fruitful and interesting debate.

Brian writes:

David Friedman,

You say:

"You are confusing utility, or some other normative concept, with reproductive success."

No, I'm not confusing anything. Please look at my post more carefully. I am making an economic argument, not a reprodcutive one. Having and raising a child is an investment of resources, effort, opportunity, etc. On average, the return on investment is strongly positive, otherwise people (and other organisms) wouldn't do it. The existence of growth in population, wealth, technology, knowledge, etc. is proof that human beings, on average, produce more than they consume. We wouldn't be here if we didn't. In other words, having children is a utility increasing activity. Since consequentialism is concerned only with increasing utility, it must conclude that having a child is (almost) always a better option than not.

Now it may be true that some individuals may not want to maximize their utility. That's their choice. But it's not an ethical choice from the standpoint of consequentialism.

Finally, you ask:

"I am curious whether you believe that it is obviously right for everyone to have as many children as he is capable of producing...."

I believe that everyone should maximise their utility. It doesn't follow that everyone should breed like rabbits. Even from a strictly reproductive perspective, evolution places limits on how fast we breed, presumably because reproductive success is not just about producing offspring. The same is true today with maximizing utility. But it's also true that, for most people, we have not reached the level where adding an additional child REDUCES our utility, so the consequentialist presumption should be in favor of having more.

Brian writes:

Ken B,

You say "The birth of the baby is not the only consequence. And the question isn't whether to have an abortion but whether to forbid an abortion."

Of course the birth of the baby is not the only consequence. Who said it was? When choosing to give birth, the parent(s)is agreeing to the investment of vast amounts of time, energy, and opportunity to raise the child to self-sufficiency. The consequences are costly. Somewhere down the line a benefit is gained. For child rearing to be the sustainable activity it has been, the benefits must outweigh the costs, both for the individual and for society. This observation is sufficient to conclude that child rearing icreases utility, which is the goal of consequentialism.

Abortion decreases utility, if only because it returns the woman to her previous state (not pregnant) at a cost (in money, time, emotional health, etc.). And this ignores the opportunity costs of not capturing the aforementioned benefits. No honest consequentialist would choose this!

With regard to the issue of legality, consequentialism is not just about government action. It's first of all a system of ethics that can also be used to guide government policy. When we decide to outlaw murder or rape, it's based on the ethical idea that murder or rape are wrong, that they do not advance the common good, and that they should be minimized. Whether to outlaw or take some other approach to eliminating them is a different decision, also made on the basis of what best promotes the common good. But it is driven by the ethical judgment of whether the behavior is good or not. This is true of abortion as well.

Brian writes:

Ken B,

You also said "I must say the anti-consequentialists here, or perhaps just the anti-abortionists, take a very peculiar view of what counts as a consequence. I have already mentioned this in regard to Brian but he is not alone ion this....Changes in laws, legal protections, the powers of the state, the lives of affected parties, these are all consequences."

I find your own comments peculiar, since you seem to be attributing to me view that I don't hold, nor have said. I am certainly no anti-consequentialist. Consequences, as I have explained above, are very broad indeed, much broader than "changes in laws, legal protections, ..." And yes, all such consequences must be accounted for when calculating utility. I don't think anyone here has suggested otherwise. Why you think so is beyond me.

The bottom line is that when all such consequences are taken into account, abortion decreases utility and childbirth increases it for the vast majority of cases.

Ken B writes:

Brian,
You note my two possibilities, anti consequentialists or anti abortionists, then deny the former, evince the latter, and conclude my remarks don't fit you. Peculiar indeed.

Brian writes:

Ken B,

I may or may not be "anti-abortion"--it depends on what you mean by that--but either way it is completely irrelevant. Why don't you try responding to the substance of my arguments?

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