Saturday, April 20, 2013

Debate with David Friedman, Part II: Was Landsburg's Puzzle Interesting?


In his recent post titled Why Landsburg’s Puzzle is Interesting, David Friedman attempted to rebuke those who felt solving it was trivially easy. He divided these people into the libertarians (who found it obvious that rape violated natural rights), and the dissenting philosophers (who found utilitarianism uninteresting in general). He rebuked the libertarians by arguing that the natural rights distinction was not important, because lots of things penetrate our bodies without being considered immoral (repeating Landsburg’s example of photons). He rebuked the philosophers by noting that nobody has proven the best theory of moral philosophy, and opining that utilitarianism is among the most interesting and plausible theories out there.

The trouble with this is that in order to find Landsburg’s puzzle interesting, one has to agree with Friedman on those issues. One has to accept that natural rights don’t matter, and assume a version of utilitarianism that ignores all non-physical harm as the de facto system for moral analysis. If you do that, the puzzle appears to prove that there is no difference between an ornery prude getting her panties in a bunch over porn, and a woman being horrified by her own bodily violation – certainly an interesting and counterintuitive conclusion. Perhaps it's fair to say Landsburg's puzzle is interesting to utilitarian libertarians.

But many people, perhaps even most, don’t fit that description. Most people apply other rules besides the maximization of aggregate pleasure when determining the morality of their actions. Some of those people, including a good number of libertarians reading Landsburg’s blog, feel that natural rights also play a role. One of those rights is the ownership of our own bodies, and since rape violates bodily autonomy while porn doesn’t, Landsburg’s comparison is neither valid nor particularly thought provoking for those people. It’s only interesting to people who believe that the violation of natural rights is an irrelevant distinction.

It is true Landsburg later amended his post to argue why it’s an irrelevant distinction by including the photon analogy. But this strikes me as an entirely separate argument, and one philosophers have already been having for many years. If all Landsburg sought to do was to rehash old debates about natural rights by reframing them in a new application, that’s fine, but he wasn’t contributing anything groundbreaking to that discussion. And as it related to his initial conclusion, the analogy simply made one’s interest in his puzzle dependent on two things instead of one: whether one thinks rights violations matter, and whether on thinks rape and photons are analogous examples of a rights violation.

This is what made Landsburg’s argument uninteresting to me and to most people: it implicitly assumed utilitarianism is correct. Anyone who wasn’t already a utilitarian would find no reason to regard Landsburg’s conclusion as intriguing – at least, not any more intriguing than they found utilitarianism itself to be.

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