Bryan Caplan  

Libertarianism as Moral Overlearning

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"I'd be willing to pa... Henry Hazlitt, public intellec...
"Overlearning" is a key idea in educational psychology.  One good explanation:
Overlearning is a pedagogical concept according to which newly acquired skills should be practiced well beyond the point of initial mastery, leading to automaticity.
In experiments, researchers often test the effects of overlearning by (a) making subjects practice until they reach 100% accuracy, then (b) practicing some more.  Intuitively, though, the idea is simply to make perfection routineSubtleties aside, overlearning has two big benefits.

First, overlearning is one of the best ways to attain lifelong competence.  Most people who study algebra soon forget what they learned.  Who doesn't?  People who go on to study calculus - a more advanced subject that requires the routine, error-free use of algebra.

Second, overlearning is one of the best ways to attain true Transfer of Learning.  When you're a novice driver, you can easily get into trouble if you have to drive an unfamiliar car.  But once you have so much driving experience that you no longer need to think about driving, your competence generalizes to almost any automobile.

As far as Google knows, no psychologist has extended the idea of overlearning to moral reasoning.  But it's a natural extension.  A small child may grasp that "It's wrong to hit other kids unless they hit you first."  But he often forgets this moral knowledge - or fails to apply it in unfamiliar situations.  As he grows up, however, the child typically practices this principle to perfection.  The moral principle pops into his head whenever and wherever he feels the slightest urge to start a fistfight.

All too often, of course, people learn but fail to overlearn.  As a result, their knowledge is "inert."  If you explicitly test them, they can spit out the right answer.  But they frequently forget or ignore their knowledge in relevant situations.  For example, a person may know the moral principle, "Everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," yet support slavery.

If you have a conscience, you should care about moral overlearning.  What good is moral "knowledge" if people fail to use it?  But the concept is especially pressing for libertarians.  Libertarians often argue that they are merely holding governments to ordinary moral standards.  It's wrong for a private individual to physically attack other people who are behaving peacefully.  It's wrong for a private individual to take other people's property without their consent.  So why is it OK for government to do these things?  Yet non-libertarians usually find these observations unconvincing.

My claim: The fundamental difference between libertarians and non-libertarians is that libertarians have overlearned common-sense morality.  Non-libertarians only reliably apply basic morality when society encourages them to do so.  Libertarians, in contrast, deeply internalize basic morality.  As a result, they apply it automatically in the absence of social pressure - and even when society discourages common decency.

For example, non-libertarians routinely say, "A woman has a right to use her own body as she likes."  But it never even occurs to them that this implies that prostitution should be legal.  Why?  Because non-libertarians only apply this principle in the exact situations where their society encourages them to do so.  They learn the principle without overlearning it.  Libertarians, in contrast, can't help but see the logical connection between a woman's right to use her own body and the right to have sex for money.

To take a far larger issue, people across the political spectrum would agree that, "Accepting a job offer is not a crime."  (What's the moral equivalent of "Duh"?)  But most non-libertarians see no conflict between this principle and immigration restrictions.  Once you overlearn the principle, however, the whole moral landscape transforms.  You suddenly see that our immigration status quo is morally comparable to the reviled Jim Crow laws.  The fact that other people frown on the comparison doesn't change the moral facts.

The "libertarianism as moral overlearning" framing is self-congratulatory.  I freely admit it.  Perhaps the real story is that libertarians stupidly generalize narrow moral principles to situations where they're entirely inappropriate.*  Either way, though, the concept of moral overlearning deserves your attention.  If you only apply moral principles when other people encourage you to do so, how much about right and wrong do you really know?

* If that's what you think, I highly recommend Mike Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority, which explores these questions forwards and backwards.



COMMENTS (45 to date)
Perry Metzger writes:

Bravo.

Vipul Naik writes:

Couldn't the same be said of Peter Singer-style radical utilitarians?

brendan writes:

You'll find that MANY folks who identify with Steve Sailer-type-ideas were pure libertarians when they were younger. I think you are right that Libertarianism is more self-consistent than liberalism/conservatism, but yes, lots of formerly pure libertarians eventually conclude that libertarians naively generalize a bit too much.

If Bryan Caplan is right, this is a brilliant application of overlearning. If Caplan is wrong, this is an extremely silly argument, because it assumes that the distribution of moral overlearning is non-random. Why are libertarians more likely to overlearn? I don't think there's a good answer. But, this argument can be tested. My guess is that the result will favor the "silly" interpretation.

(Also, I guess Rawls was an atypical non-libertarian and Nozick an atypical libertarian.)

Greg G writes:

Yes, it's true. Libertarians often think they are the only ones who have properly understood morality. And libertarians often do apply their principles "automatically." And so do socialists. And so do conservatives. And so do religious fanatics of all types.

This is a bug not a feature in each case.

Jeff writes:

Maybe, or are libertarians (and I consider myself one) just ideologues who like taking a few abstract principles and applying them to every crooked timber issue or question that comes up? There's a certain attractiveness to doing so, right? An ideology can function as a decision algorithm, relieving adherents of having to think too deeply about weighty, complicated topics while also allowing one a sense of moral superiority for committing to and advocating for a consistent set of ethics or principles, unlike others who are presumed to be unprincipled or morally compromised.

There may be some justification for this sense of superiority (I'd like to think so, anyway), but I would just point out that caution is warranted on this score, as it is pretty easy to remain an ideological purist when you wield no real political power, as libertarians do not.

By that same token committed communists, once upon a time, saw oppression and exploitation of the working class everywhere they looked, even when it wasn't there, but when those same working class people disputed these declamations, what did the communists do? They comforted themselves with goofy narratives about false consciousness and cultural hegemony and so forth.

How do you know you're not doing something similar?

Silas Barta writes:

Agree about the importance of overlearning. But I think this is far too uncharitable to non-libertarians, since the points of disagreement can be just as easily explained by them extrapolating from a *different* (probably larger) set of perspicuous examples. For example, "generally, the current bundle of social conventions and legal rights should be respected". That would give a solid basis for reject the naive generalization of the violence axioms to e.g. taxation.

Matt writes:

Wouldn't there be a trade-off between overlearning and something else. I don't think everyone could or would devote the resources to overlearn one particular skill(morality or otherwise). Also, isn't morality a little too subjective for overlearning? You could study calculus from a thousand different teachers and they probably wouldn't ever disagree. You could just internalize everything they said. I'm not sure the same follows with morality.

Also, I would really like to see the idea of overlearning pushed more at the university level. I always found it depressing how many people majoring in the humanities didn't really understand the concept of research methods, or statistical analysis.

Jacob A. Geller writes:

"Perhaps the real story is that libertarians stupidly generalize narrow moral principles to situations where they're entirely inappropriate."

This is true for some libertarians.

Case in point, I recently made this argument to one libertarian: libertarians do not apply the non-aggression principle equally to the private sector and the government; the NAP itself does apply equally, but libertarians themselves hold a double-standard. A priori, government coercion is worse (in their minds) than private coercion.

He disagreed, obviously.

So I came up with the following thought experiment: suppose a woman is starving in a refugee camp somewhere in/near Syria. She also has children, who are malnourished. Now suppose an individual comes up to her with a bowl of rice, and offers her the bowl of rice on the condition that she provide him with oral sex. It's important that in this thought experiment a bowl of rice is not particularly valuable to this particular man; he's got lots of rice. He could give it to her for free. But he withholds it because he wants a blowjob. The woman doesn't want to give him any oral sex, but she doesn't want to starve to death either, nor does she like the idea of her children suffering from permanent brain damage, the result of their worsening malnourishment. So she provides him with oral sex, much to her eternal shame and other psychological harms, but she survives the camp.

Two questions: 1) has the guy in this story done anything coercive or immoral, in the view of libertarianism, and 2) is it morally acceptable, in the view of libertarianism, for someone else, e.g. the U.N. World Food Programme, to coerce the Western taxpayer out of his/her income and use the proceeds to give this woman a bowl of rice, thereby obviating any need for oral sex?

What do you suppose my libertarian friend said to these two questions? Again, his answer surprised even me...

To be clear, I do consider this story to be about a prostitution, and no, I am NOT in favor of criminalizing prostitution. At all.

That being said, I consider what this hypothetical man has done (or not-so-hypothetical..? Google "war brides") to be both immoral and coercive. It's rape, even. And I think most people would agree with me. This guy had a moral obligation to save a woman's life, given that it was easy/cheap for him to do so, but he deliberately withheld aid, effectively threatening her with death from starvation and/or the suffering of her own children, all so he could get from her some brief, petty pleasure. In my mind, that constitutes a threat of violence, and violates the NAP, and libertarianism as *I* understand it personally, as a philosophy, even though he himself did not cause the woman's predicament!

But my libertarian conversant did NOT consider this rape. He wouldn't even call it "coercion," either. He *did* consider it immoral, but he was very explicit about the fact that his opinion about this "immorality" had nothing whatsoever to do with libertarianism, the non-aggression principle, etc., which were purely "political" philosophies, but rather had to do with a "personal moral code" of his which, while important, he felt that could not an WOULD not (per the NAP... even if he were this woman's husband!) "impose" on this hypothetical rapist, for example by coercing him out of his rice. Instead of calling rape "rape," my friend took a very narrow (and "over-learned") libertarian moral view -- that an expansion of choice (in this case from to ) is a good thing -- and combined it with a second narrow libertarian moral view -- the non-aggression principle -- and together these two narrow moral views, plus a double standard about private vs. public sector coercion, became a very favorable opinion of this hypothetical rapist's behavior. After all, had he not come along, she would have starved! Good thing he made this offer, right? My libertarian conversant would not call the guy's behavior "coercive," but he DID call it "commerce." He was very explicit about this, and I re-stated his view as clearly as I could, and passed his ideological Turing test. He refused to call it "coercive," denied that it violated the non-aggression principle, and opposed any attempt by the U.N. to feed this woman on the backs of the Western taxpayer.

His view on the U.N.'s coercion, by the way -- that it could not be moral, period -- was quite aside from the possibility that the U.N. couldn't or wouldn't actually feed this woman. No, he opposed the U.N. feeding this woman even if the U.N. definitely WOULD feed her, no matter how little it cost, for the simple reason that it would be coercive of the Western taxpayer, and coercion = bad, right? In fact, he even said something along the lines of, "the guy in the private sector *might* be doing something coercive, but the government's solution is *definitely* coercive, because it coerces the taxpayer, ergo the government's response to private sector coercion is at best just as bad as the private sector coercion it's trying to correct!" In his mind, the U.N. feeding a starving woman and her children in a Syrian refugee camp a bowl of rice, on *my* tax dollar, was not only immoral, it was *more* immoral than something which *I* consider rape, but he doesn't even consider "coercive"!

Obviously this is one libertarian, and not all are going to give the same answer. But some will. And when they do, they're taking one double standard (or "cognitive bias," you can even say, if this double standard is "overlearned" and "automatized"), combining it with two narrow moral views, and generalizing the two views to an inappropriate situation. Those two narrow moral views -- that choice = good and coercion = bad -- together constituted a solid enough political philosophy for the Average Joe, and the principles themselves might be sound -- I think *I* could argue effectively that what the hypothetical rapist did was coercive per and immoral per the NAP -- but libertarians, as *people*, don't just "have" those views. They "overlearn" them, they become automatic and unthinking, they become unquestioned, and are applied in fairly scary ways. A real hatred for government coercion, and a real soft spot for the private sector -- which in some sense is understandable! -- leads to wrong answers to important moral questions. And recall that what originally led to this discussion was my (admittedly anecdotal opinion) that a lot of libertarians do this sort of thing regularly...

In real life, I think this particular libertarian would never allow his wife to be degraded like that, by a guy who clearly doesn't need that bowl of rice, and would be more likely to coerce that man out of his bowl of rice than to sit there high and mighty on his libertarian principles. I think his idiosyncratic overlearned moral views would go out the window, and his *real* common sense morality would kick in. I think the same can be said of a lot of libertarians, who are after all very decent people. Perhaps their problem (to the extent that my friend is representative, which perhaps he is not...) is that they overlearn a small set of what *they* consider to be the most basic and most important moral precepts...

Philo writes:

“For example, a person may know the moral principle, ‘Everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ yet support slavery.” But this sort of apparent inconsistency is not necessarily objectionable. What are called “moral principles” are almost invariably mere *rules of thumb*, and so are valid only for the most part, not without exception. If overlearning such moral principles led to their being applied rigidly, with no exceptions, as if they were absolutely valid, that would be an undesirable outcome.

Carl writes:
What are called “moral principles” are almost invariably mere *rules of thumb*, and so are valid only for the most part, not without exception.

Valid to whom? Are you saying that your moral principles are just *rules of thumb*, or are you telling everyone else that their moral principles are really just *rules of thumb*? Am I permitted to disagree with you by making the outrageous claim that my moral principles are in fact moral principles, and not some other thing?

S.R. Bnefsi writes:

I am unsatisfied by this genealogical account of libertarian and non-libertarian values because there are some libertarians that do not completely search or test the implications of their values against other beliefs they hold, some of which those beliefs are grounded upon societial pressure anyways.

Consider, for instance, two persons. A is a libertarian, and B is a non-libertarian. One principle of the basic morality of A is that slavery is immoral. A overlearns the principle that slavery is immoral, and generalizes the principle to inform his opinion on income taxes. Therefore, A is a libertarian because (1) A overlearns a principle of basic morality and (2) A searches the implications of holding that principle and understands why she holds it.

B shares the same principle that slavery is immoral. B overlearns the principle that slavery is immoral, but B does not generalize that principle to inform his opinion on income taxes. Therefore, B is not a libertarian because (1) B overlearns a principle of basic morality and (2) B does not search the implications of holding that principle, and probably does not understand why (2).

What's the relevancy of this instance between A and B? The relevancy is that (1) is not as important to us as (2). It's not sufficient that either A or B overlearn a principle of basic morality, but that they both firmly understand and react to the normative standards of basic principles of morality. I can learn that slavery is immoral, and that might fit one of societies expectations, but I need to also understand why slavery is immoral and why I should revise my beliefs according to the implications of holding (1).

In conclusion, principles of basic morality have normative standards that demand agents to practice those standards; I did not learn that from systems of basic morality across this society or others. I test basic morality according to methodologies designed by theoretical giants, and I test basic morality according to intuitive standards that I hold as a result of reading theoretical giants.

In the end, my political philosophy is not libertarian; in the end, there are libertarians who do not test principles of basic morality against designed ethical and metaethical standards. On the other hand, I do agree that "overlearned" is a useful concept for understanding automaticity of normativity.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

I don't know about "overlearning" but there sure is a lot of "overthinking" in the comments.

Great article. Spot on.

The problem with this analysis is that "common-sense morality" isn't internally consistent. Overlearning some part of commonsense morality leads to the rejection of other parts of it. That's how it can lead to libertarianism, socialism, or conservatism.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Greg G and some others has it right. Many extremists over-learn their ideology to the point that they are a man with a hammer offering to pound in a nail for any problem that exists. I think most of us have come across socialists who believe that every problem derives from oppression. Bryan's post is a libertarian version of this. This self-satisfaction with one's beliefs is the worst part of being a libertarian and why I am sometimes embarrassed to be part of such a group.

Tom West writes:

My initial (unkind) response would be having over-learned the hammer, the Libertarian assumes every moral situation is a nail.

(Or in other words, what Jeff said.)

Tom West writes:

Oh! I got scooped by Mark Anderson. Serves me right for typing the comment, and then clicking Submit an hour later.

I'm guilty of moral overlearning too.

I learned that it was wrong to kill people, and that it was wrong to pay a hitman to do it for me.

I emigrated to New Zealand, where basically none of the money taken from me by the government is used to kill people. Sure, they do lots of stuff with it I don't like, but they don't kill people. The police regularly fail to kill people here. We don't drone-strike families having bbqs.

You still have to file with IRS, but so long as you don't earn too much money, your foreign income exclusion keeps you covered.

So, have I over-overlearned, or have those libertarians who continue to live in the US under-overlearned?

Maniel writes:

I like the idea of extending the “over-learning” envelope – from the acquisition and perfection of skills to habits regarding morality and other life issues – but I do not accept the suggestion that people of one political persuasion are necessarily more or less moral than those of another. In fact I believe that adults of good conscience, regardless of political or religious persuasion, share much the same goal set: good health, prosperity, happiness, peace, mutual respect, for us, our families, friends, communities, etc. I think that the differences lie in our strategies to achieve those goals. As a very rough caricature, democrats believe that the solutions to just about every problem lie in taxing high earners and sending the money to Washington so that the very smart people in government can redistribute the money to more deserving others (the elderly, the poor, the unemployed, donors, etc.) and can pass lots of new laws to regulate business; republicans believe that the solutions lie in borrowing lots of money to send to those same very smart people to redistribute it to well-connected businesses and to pass lots of laws to regulate people’s lives; and libertarians believe that the people in Washington are not nearly smart enough to know exactly who needs what and when; they believe in keeping their money closer to home and relying on the power of free markets and their own charitable instincts. Bottom line: I do not equate goals and strategies (to achieve the goals).

Greg Jaxon writes:

The fundamental difference between libertarians and non-libertarians is that libertarians have overlearned a particular subset of common-sense morality: the part known to be universal. The rest of moral law may be less universally respected, but more's the pity. When there is a feast day for Saint Bryan the Non-Aggressor, I will humbly eat my words.

Rob writes:

@Jacob A. Geller

Your example with poverty-driven prostitution is interesting. I would not call it rape either. It doesn't violate the NAP. If you disagree, did you think the consequences through?

1) Clearly, omitting all interaction and letting the woman starve cannot be morally better than offering her the transaction, to which she can still say no.

2) So the only remaining alternative is to condemn any omission of interactions as long as someone has a need. Are you really willing to accept full-blown utilitarianism of this sort, earn extra money and donate it all? For the rest of your life? Really? Most people aren't, but they still condemn consensual interactions of this type ("exploitation"), which leads to the worst outcome for the person in need!

Also note that radical utilitarianism of this sort doesn't logically stop with starving people. E.g. if omissions of need-fulfillments are reprehensible, then shouldn't beautiful women have a moral obligation to sexually satisfy men who are not in their league and who would like more sex than they get? Should governments maybe enforce that, too?

Himanshu Sanguri writes:

I think that the author has been impulsive in concluding the fundamental difference between libertarians and non-libertarians, that libertarians have overlearned common-sense morality. Overlearning is a cognitive skill set that we achieve by practice. Common sense and morality require deep thinking. To establish the fact that if a person or group religiously practices a thought school will always be morally correct does not make a complete sense, although there chances are high to do so.
Rest, I like the idea of overlearning in our day to day life activities and new learnings.

RJB writes:

Overlearning or overgeneralization?

Hazel Meade writes:

It's an interesting argument, and points to the pro and con side of overlearning are well taken.

I would like to add that overlearning does have the beneficial effect of preventing people from being corrupted by power they weild. If everyone with power, simply and uniformly applied the same moral principles to all situations, there would be a lot less political corruption, rent seekning, and general abuse of power to further one's self interest.

Most people will tend to rationalize doing what is in one's self interest when they have the power to get away with it. What I see , with respect to liberals/conservatives, is a lot of post hoc rationalization for policies that really are just self-interest. Voting for more benefits for oneself.

If libertarians "overlearn" morality, that is a moral barrier to voting oneself benefits and wielding power on behalf of one's own interests, then coming up with post hoc rationalizations for those policies. As such it is socially beneficial.

Ted Levy writes:

The perfect example of Bryan's point occurred 68 years ago today. Most Americans complain of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, but have no problem with Hiroshima. Libertarians see the obvious hypocrisy.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Psychologists make a lot of money from the consequences of people overlearning morality. Automatic application of overlearned dysfunctional moral principles ("homosexuality is evil", for example) in their own lives causes many people much pain.

Just sayin'.

Delphin writes:

Hey can we all play? "We're not homophobes, we just overlearned sexual morality."

Delphin writes:

I think common sense morality tells us you don't let children starve when there is plenty of food that might go to waste near at hand. I guess that's just my under-learning on display.

jeppen writes:

I think moral overlearning argument is simply false. Instead, I think libertarianism attract a certain personality type - the introverted abstract thinker. Moreover, I think it attracts the more intelligent and emotionally stable/socially autonomous of those.

This might be self-serving as well, but more correct, I think. It is not overlearning anything that does it. It is simply that we are more aloof, more independent, more abstract thinking and more able to see that freedom actually works. More socially non-autonomous types need to internalize to the views of their surroundings and the less intelligent fail to understand economics and the beneficial evolutionary environment that is the marketplace.

Rob writes:

@Delphin:

I think common sense morality tells us you don't let children starve when there is plenty of food that might go to waste near at hand.
I agree with the intuition, but the limits become fishy very quickly.

For instance, what does go to waste mean? Is it okay to eat even slightly more than I need for survival as long as there are starving people in reach?

Do we actively have to bring food to the starving people, or is it enough not to prevent them from taking it if it is near to them?

Does the food have to be pre-existing? Do we also have an obligation to grow more food? Is it okay, say, to also build some tennis courts instead? Or shopping malls selling non-survival goods?

Does it only count for existing children or do we also have an obligation to make as many babies as we can potentially feed? Or do we maybe have an obligation to stop people from breeding to prevent more starving children?

What about other needs? Do beautiful people have an obligation to satisfy the sexual/romantic desires of ugly people?

What about other species? Do we have to save wild baby rabbits from starving, too? What about mice? Fish? Spiders?

How much are we forced to optimize? Do we have a moral obligation to spend all our time and energy on creating a utilitronium shockwave? Even if it wipes us all out because we are not optimized enough for happiness?

I'm not saying there are necessarily right or wrong answers, but common sense morality usually doesn't even ask the questions.

Hana writes:

Sounds like 'overlearning' is another word for zealotry. The righteousness of libertarian's moral overlearning is matched by the righteousness of the liberal's emotional overcaring, is matched by the bureaucrat's perpetual overregulating.

I remain unconvinced by yet another argument from Dr. Caplan that devolves in to a justification for open borders. Open borders sound like anarchy to me. If there was a libertarian community, what would be wrong with restricting entrance to libertarians? By extension, everyone legally entitled to be in the community should be free to apply for and offer employment, that does not mean people not entitled to be in the community are given those same rights.

Delphin writes:

It's a relief to me to learn that common sense morality is culture independent, and un changing over time. It's like algebra that way.

That's why Caplan is wrong about abortion. Common Sensers don't kill people for convenience. They don't assume the silent or unconscious are not human, no no, the common Sensers gives the possible killee the benefit of the doubt.

Odd. How could the over learned professor get this wrong? I prescribe remedial algebra.

Delphin writes:

Hana: yes! What a great observation. 2+2 =4 therefore open borders.

Tom West writes:

I'm not saying there are necessarily right or wrong answers

Which is exactly why I find the idea that there are a few inviolable core principles (which you can apparently over-learn) odd. Reality is simply too complicated for there to be absolutely universal principles that operate in all cases.

Or, as I like to say, I have no principles, only guidelines.

Gepap writes:

How exactly would the process of overlearning "moral principles" occur? Are libertarians forced to interact 'morally' with others more? Do they make their 'moral' choices more often?

A bigger problem with this scenario is that 'morality' is neither absolute nor simple. Two competing values, say fairness and justice, can come into conflict easily, so what does the morally overlearned libertarian do, exactly? Chose fairness, or justice?

Finally, some of your moral examples are, well, questionable. You speak of property, but what is the moral value by which an individual can claim a monopoly of control over a track of land, denying its use to anyone else? Its easy to explain property as trinkets and things we can carry with one, or have in hand. But the bigger basis of libertarian thought seems to me to be land ownership, and that is a fundamentally different thing. Under your "overlearned" moral principle, if somehow an individual can come into 'legal' ownership of the most prosperous land and decides they chose not to allow a group of starving people to use it to feed themselves, that is a moral act which a libertarian would gladly defend. Except the notion that such a decision is inherently moral is absurd, and most old fashioned stores of 'moral knowledge', that is holy books, would damn the selfish landowner.

Thomas Boyle writes:

I have to admit to being very puzzled by Jacob Geller's scenario.

First, he dismisses the fact that the woman now has options she didn't have before. Instead he focuses on the appropriateness of offering her that option, instead of other options. A libertarian view is that, if the only available offer is that one, she is better off than before, and by definition no worse off.

But a libertarian view doesn't stop there. Evidently, this person with rice has easy, low-cost access to it. In the real world, this means other people would too. Many of them, driven by moral sensibilities, will offer her a better option and she will choose their offer over his. Most of us - libertarians certainly included - will pay to relieve the moral tensions we would experience on witnessing a situation like this.

If there is truly no-one making her a better offer, then for reasons we can't know from the information available, it appears that there is no-one else in a position to make her a better offer. Perhaps, indeed, the rice-bearer's offer is extraordinary because no-one else in this situation, where rice is a matter of life and death, would make such an offer for a mere blow job? Except, in the scenario, a gun-toting agent who will impose his morally-superior will upon the rice-bearer.

Interesting. And, having imposed his will upon the rice-bearer, what if the agent with the gun demands, oh, say, a blow job? As well as, you know, a fee for the rice-transfer service?

Now, it can be argued that it's not fair if only those with moral sensibility have to bear the burden of supporting the poor. If the men with guns take from all and spread the wealth, then everyone will have to bear the burden equally.

Maybe. Or, maybe the men with guns will have some other plan. That's the trouble with absolute power: the risk of total corruption. Meanwhile, in a free society, if those who have moral sensibility outnumber those who do not, karma has a way of implementing redistribution too, as reputations spread. And, of course, if those with moral sensibilities are a minority, we can be absolutely sure that the men-with-guns scenario will go badly; it may go badly anyway.

The case, as described, is unrealistic. It omits the presence of others with moral sensibilities, who would - quite freely - seek to offer the woman a less repugnant option. And, it omits to consider the possibility that if men with rice can make repugnant demands, men with guns can even more certainly do so.

Not that any of this has to do with overlearning. As my earlier comment indicated, I think Bryan missed the bus on that one!

Tom West writes:

Thomas Boyle, I think what concerns a lot of non-Libertarians is that analogous incidents do occur regularly when there is already a strong moral opprobrium against it.

We can only imagine a society where such moral strictures against such behavior are a secondary, personal morality rather than a central tenet shared by "all".

You assume a society that is very much like our own, but with certain principles "overlearned". I think many of us worry that we would actually end up with a morality *limited* to those principles.

Jacob A. Geller writes:

Rob and Thomas both immediately made the same mistake: they assumed I somehow overlooked the fortunate fact that the woman in my scenario has more choices.

I am aware of that. Very, very aware of that.

Nonetheless it is coercive, it's rape, and it violates the NAP, precisely because the man had more than two options. He didn't HAVE to choose between <offer rice on the condition of oral sex> and <nothing>. If he did, then I'd applaud his decision. But he had a third option, which was <give her rice>. He failed to exercise that option, deliberately opting for the second option instead, and THAT is what makes it coercive.

In the thought experiment I explicitly said that the third option is very cheap and easy for him to do. Given the disutility to the woman that results from either of the first two options, and the (near?) total lack of any disutility to the man as a result of the third option, simply giving her the rice is by far the most moral thing to do. Anything less is eitehr rape or forced starvation (And no, the mere fact that he did not *cause* her original state of near-starvation has no bearing whatsoever on that fact).

But instead of doing the right thing and just giving her the rice he doesn't need, he chooses the second option, which is coercive precisely because it *is* a threat of violence. The threat (and I'm still shocked that I even have to explain this) is that he will deliberately withhold food from her, causing her to starve to death unnecessarily.

Oh, and don't forget the children.

I would also like to reiterate that 3 out of 3 libertarians who have responded explicitly to this thought experiment have failed to see that it is coercive, that it violates the NAP, that it violates libertarian principles, and that it is rape, and instead have opted to immediately wax rhapsodic about one narrow, overlearned, automatized, System 1 libertarian moral view (that more choice = good), ignoring other basic moral principles completely (like the notion of duty, or responsibility to protect), and have arbitrarily rewritten the terms of the thought experiment to make it easier to swallow (I especially like Thomas' assertion, completely pulled out of thin air, that the woman definitely has easy access to a bowl of rice. She doesn't - that's the situation. If you have to change the story to make it fit your moral worldview, there is probably something wrong with your worldview.).

I'd also like to reiterate that I think Rob and Thomas would absolutely consider it coercive if this were happening right in front of their eyes to their own wife and children, because they're not monsters, they're decent people, but they're libertarians so they come to the table with certain biases ("overlearned moral principles") and this is the result.

[html coding fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Jacob A. Geller writes:

...the HTML editor erased parts of my comments because I used the less-than and greater-than symbols. I've reproduced my comment below with the symbols removed, and all text intact:

"Rob and Thomas both immediately made the same mistake: they assumed I somehow overlooked the fortunate fact that the woman in my scenario has more choices.

I am aware of that. Very, very aware of that.

Nonetheless it is coercive, it's rape, and it violates the NAP, precisely because the man had more than two options. He didn't HAVE to choose between *do nothing* and *offer: suck me or starve.* If he did, then I'd applaud his decision to go with the second option, because an expansion of choice in this situation is a good thing. Let the woman exercise her choice - if she values her own life and that of her kids, she'll suck him and survive; if not, then she'll die, because she REALLY doesn't want to suck him that bad. But the guy had a third option, which was *give her and her children the rice in exchange for little or nothing.* He failed to exercise that option, DELIBERATELY, opting for the second option instead, precisely because he wants her to do something that is admittedly better than starvation BUT is still horrible, and THAT is what makes it coercive.

In the thought experiment I explicitly said that the third option is very cheap and easy for him to do. Given the considerable disutility to the woman (and her children) that results from either of the first two options, and the (near?) total lack of any disutility to the man as a result of the third option, simply giving her the rice is by far the most moral thing to do. Anything less is either rape or forced starvation (And no, the mere fact that he did not *cause* her original state of near-starvation has no bearing whatsoever on that fact).

But instead of doing the right thing and just giving her the rice he doesn't need, he chooses the second option, which is coercive precisely because it *is* a threat of violence. The threat (and I'm still shocked that I even have to explain this) is that he will deliberately withhold food from her, causing her to starve to death unnecessarily.

Oh, and don't forget the children.

I would also like to reiterate that 3 out of 3 libertarians who have responded explicitly to this thought experiment have failed to see that it is coercive, that it violates the NAP, that it violates libertarian principles, and that it is rape, and instead have opted to immediately wax rhapsodic about one narrow, overlearned, automatized, System 1 libertarian moral view (that more choice = good), ignoring other basic moral principles completely (like the notion of duty, or responsibility to protect), and have arbitrarily rewritten the terms of the thought experiment to make it easier to swallow (I especially like Thomas' assertion, completely pulled out of thin air, that the woman definitely has easy access to a bowl of rice. She doesn't - that's the situation. If you have to change the story to make it fit your moral worldview, there is probably something wrong with your worldview.).

I'd also like to reiterate that I think Rob and Thomas would absolutely consider it coercive if this were happening right in front of their eyes to their own wife and children, because they're not monsters, they're decent people, but they're libertarians so they come to the table with certain biases ("overlearned moral principles") and this is the result."

[I went in and fixed the original for you, also.]

Jacob A. Geller writes:

Good comments from Vipul, Greg, Jeff (who I will note is a self-described libertarian), Silas, Mark, Tom West, and others in this thread.

Rob writes:

@Jacob A. Geller:

It is unfortunate that you didn't feel it necessary to address the other points we made. So please answer these two questions accurately and honestly:

1) Do you earn as much money as you possibly could (without ruining your health completely) and donate all your disposable income to the most effective charities?

2) If not, considering that there are starving people (yes, also children), how are you different from the man who omits giving rice away for free?


I'd also like to reiterate that I think Rob and Thomas would absolutely consider it coercive if this were happening right in front of their eyes to their own wife and children

Hm, I don't know. I'm in a somewhat similar situation: I have to work for a living or lose my apartment and become homeless. My work doesn't contain blowjobs and being homeless doesn't mean I would starve (there are homeless shelters, after all). But still, I could call this coercive and slavery because I don't like my work and I would rather be dead than homeless. Nevertheless, I don't consider myself a victim of slavery any more than the woman in your thought experiment is a victim of rape.

Churm Rincewind writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Joshua Lyle writes:

@Jacob A. Geller:

There's a very important point missing from your narrative. You say that the person that tried wot withhold rice for sexual favors is a rapist. But the critical question is: what are you prepared to do about it? I'm prepared to grant that the person is immoral, and failed in a moral duty to save another person's life at a small cost and no risk to themselves, and committed a despicable act. But my libertarian intuition is that I have no right to employ violence to compel them to perform that duty (it is an imperfect one, therefor not enforceable). I'd say they could be shamed and blackballed and generally cut off from the fruits of decent society on a voluntary basis, but I wouldn't use force against them.

Do you mean to say that you would forcibly combine the person you call a rapist in a concrete box for the rest of their life(or some other punishment you find suitable) for what they did? Or threaten me if I don't help you do it? Or do you agree with me that they are a bad person, but we don't have the right to hurt them?

Joshua Lyle writes:

Continuing questions for Jacob A. Geller

Lets say that I stand mute while you put into place a UN that collects money from me (discretely at gunpoint) that effectively goes to feed the hungry. I'm not comfortable with this, because I know that power is abused, but I tolerate it so long as the goods are actually used for things that I agree are good and that I have a (imperfect) duty to do, like feeding the starving.

However, when a UN aid worker withholds a bowl of rice (that I , in part, paid for) until a desperate mother performs a sexual act (that is, in your words, rapes her) whom shall you help me punish? You, for founding this powerful and violent organization that will have the predictable consequence of such abuses? The worker that performed the rape? The tax collectors that received the goods and communicated the threat under which they were collected? The bureaucrats between you all that abetted each step?

Scott Semans writes:

Your essay would make more sense substituting anarchism for libertarianism. Minarchist and Constitutionalists who self-identify as libertarians see government as a special though limited institution within society whose employees have powers, duties beyond those of ordinary citizens, i.e. providing police and judiciary which require, if not monopoly, paramountcy of force. It is anarchists who see all persons as having rights and duties equally, and to whom the overlearning insight applies. Your penultimate paragraph describes overapplication, which is a criticism of anarchism, not libertarianism in general.

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