Thursday, April 11, 2013

Response to David Friedman's Defense of Steven Landsburg

Another libertarian whom I greatly respect, David Friedman, has rushed to the defense of Steven Landsburg, arguing his hypothetical was both interesting and difficult to answer. You can read what Friedman wrote here: I don't have time to respond to his entire argument, but here is my response to a quote from one of those blogs:

"When I look out the window and see the light in a neighbor's window, the fact I can do so shows that photons whose existence he caused have trespassed on both my property and my retina. We don't see that as obviously wrong. Why?" - Friedman

Short answer: because photon penetration isn't truly the doing of human beings, making it beyond the scope of governable and morally calculable activity.

Long answer: The whole point of the term "natural rights" is that we have them naturally from birth. In a state of nature free from outside human interference, each individual inherently has his life, his liberty, and his property. Our primary and initial piece of property is our own bodies, and in this state of nature we enjoy a degree of bodily autonomy.

But even in this world, that bodily autonomy has never been interpreted to mean we're free from things like photon penetration. Light is not a human action so much as a natural and perpetual occurrence. The sun is natural, but it penetrates our body with photons all the time. Similarly, smells are natural, but when we smell something tiny particles enter our body, perhaps against our will. Even breathing involves an arguably involuntary body penetration of certain materials. But to the majority of thinking people, these atomic-level natural interactions are insignificant enough to disregard, because they aren't truly the result of human actions so much as the unavoidable and perpetual physics of human existence.

When we say government is designed to "protect our natural rights", we rarely take the time to specify from whom those rights are being protected. But it's clear what we mean is to protect them FROM OTHER PEOPLE. Whom else do governments govern? Surely they don't govern animals; when we say murder is illegal, we don't both explaining this to a bear that might maul us. When we protect people's right to life, we don't protect it from germs who might infect us, or from lightning that might strike us. The law holds no dominion over these things. And even though humans can sometimes manipulate this natural world in such a way as it becomes an unnatural cause of death (imagine if I injected you with germs with the intent of getting you sick), we draw a line somewhere between what is truly "human" action, vs. what is the natural ebb and flow of nature. I'm not sure exactly where that line is, but I'm fairly certain turning on a light is on one side of it, and rape is on another.

Perhaps the majority of people who were angered by Landsburg's hypothetical couldn't articulate this distinction if you asked them. But I do believe that when serious intellectuals hand-wavingly dismiss the distinction between penetrating your body with a photon, and penetrating it with a penis, the rest of us can't help but roll our eyes. He has his head in the clouds - which is fine (what philosopher doesn't?), so long as he recognizes and acknowledges it. By posing the question "is that any different?" instead of the question "why is that different?", Landsburg crossed the border between thought experiment and ridiculous argument. He insinuated that he didn't know if one was any worse than the other, and that's beneath his intellectual capacity. You don't need a degree in philosophy to understand, on a fundamental level, why the pleasure obtained by rapists cannot justify rape.


  1. 1. As I think I pointed out in my post, the light that reaches my retina might be the product of human action, my neighbor turning on the light in his living room. We can be naturally hit on the head by a falling tree branch. Being clubbed still feels like a rights violation. So I don't think "it also happens in nature" solves the puzzle.

    2. In the real world case that connected to Landsburg's post, as it happens, the penetration was with a finger. That isn't relevant to either the argument he sketched or my response, although it makes his harmless hypothetical somewhat more plausible, but it might be relevant to the emotional responses.

    1. 1. As I think I pointed out in my post, perpetual photon penetration may not be a product of human action; your body would be penetrated by light whether or not he turned on his living room lamp. Being struck by falling branches is a freak accident – being struck by light is an almost constant occurrence.

      But even if that lamp were the only source of light on earth, just because your neighbor turned it on does not mean he is morally responsible for its effects. If your neighbor farted in his living room, and the smell wafted over to you through diffusion, is he morally responsible for penetrating your nose with methane? Or is there a difference between something he deliberately inserts into you, and a happenstance, second or third level effect at the atomic level? I see several differences.

      One difference is intent and knowledge. Rapists intend to stick a part of their body into another person's another person's body without that person's consent. They know full well what they are doing, and they do it anyway. But many people who turn on lights have no idea what photons even are. Knowingly deciding to violate another person's body is less morally excusable (not to mention legally punishable) than doing it accidentally or ignorantly.

      Another difference is directness. In order for someone to be morally responsible for something, the causal link between the actions they took and the outcome they are blamed for must be fairly direct and exclusive. A pharmacist selling prescription painkillers is not responsible for the deaths of people who overdose. If your neighbor waters his lawn, causing you to slip on the slick grass and crack your head open on a rock, he’s not to blame for that either. Each of those actions may have, in some small and highly indirect way, contributed to an eventual harm brought on somebody else. Technically, those deaths wouldn’t have happened without something the agent did; therefore, they are technically a “product of human action”. But they do not constitute a rights violation on the part of other human beings, because the link between the action and the effect is so indirect as to be insignificant. By comparison, physically penetrating someone else's body with your own body is the most direct form of causation possible.

      When we combine these distinctions, the rape and the photons are not analogous. Yes, bodily penetration happens all the time in nature. But in order for one human being to be held morally responsible for the penetration of another, he must have directly, intentionally and maliciously initiated an unnatural and potentially damaging form of penetration. Physical violence meets these criteria. Rape meets these criteria. Your neighbor’s farts do not.

      2. I am aware that the Steubenville rapists merely fingered their victim. But as you admit, according to Landsburg, it could just as well have been a penis, so long as the woman wasn't physically harmed by it. Or, rather, as long as she wasn't harmed by it MORE than the rapists enjoyed putting it in. By that standard, it could have also been a bullet that passed through her, so long as it didn’t hurt that bad and the guys who shot her had a kick-ass time. And you wonder why people reacted to this moral calculus with “emotional responses?” I humor these discussions only because I enjoy articulating logically, as best I can, what most people only express emotionally: that’s outrageous.

  2. I live in the U.K, a Common Law country like the U.S, though with some differences. The photon example actually has a legal precedent. A tenant of ours found the high wattage security light installed by a neighbour disturbing to his sleep. We looked into it and found that the light really was too strong and the motion detector way too sensitive and sent a solicitor's cease and desist letter to the property owner. The common law has always recognized that things like cutting off day-light or shade by either a construction something new or the destruction of something pre-existing can give rise to an action for damages. Friedman suggests that there is some significance to whether the action in damages lies against the property owner or the person who causes the offence. I've asked him why he thinks so and if there's any literature to support this claim but he has ignored my comments and from what I can tell there is no substance to such a claim.
    Landsburg writes pretty irresponsibly and achieves his effects by ignoring the Law of the land which is that the State becomes the Guardian of a person incapacitated for whatever reason and has a legal duty to take notice of any offence against such a person and to prosecute the offenders whether or not the incapacitated person suffered any 'subjective' (i.e. self assessed damage). However, a defence exists for the scoundrels who did this disgusting deed iff they can prove that there was a pre-contract whereby, for some substantial advantage to herself, the victim deliberately incapacitated herself for the specific purpose of becoming victim to this revolting crime. However, in England, this defence would fail- I don't know the relevant State law in your country.
    Friedman does have some claim to be regarded as a Libertarian though he has done himself no favours by his ill-judged remarks on this issue. Vide
    Landsburg is simply an enfant terrible- an 'underage thinker' as you put it- whose blog posts demonstrate a Yahoo indifference to the rules of Public debate and a reckless disregard for the truth when it comes to re-stating the Rules derived by the Great Economists of the common Canon. Vide
    What is it about rape that gets Landsburg so hot and bothered? Vide

    One important reason to be a Libertarian is that we don't have to put up with eggheads when their thoughts get too addled.

  3. Sorry, I didn't get that you were the underage thinker. I saw stuff about the U.S army and jumped to conclusions.

    Anyway, you write well but don't know from Econ or Phil.
    Still, your intuition was right. Friedman on Landsburg is mystification simply.
    See my blog
    BTW, how come Friedman, like Landsburg, only responds to comments from the informationally disadvantaged or rationality challenged?
    What's up with that?

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  5. windwheel, you seem to agree with my conclusion, but I still think your post misses the mark a bit. The problem is that you're discussing legality, even the detailed specifics of British vs. American common law and case precedent, but I don't see how that's relevant. This debate only indirectly has to do with what is legal - the more important question is what is moral. If you're as libertarian as you say you are, you surely see the difference. Yet you write that Landsburg "achieves his effects by ignoring the Law of the land", proceeding to describe British laws on state guardianship and incapacitation. Who cares what those laws say? What the law is is irrelevant to what the law should be.

    On an unrelated note, calling me "informationally disadvantaged or rationally challenged" was uncalled for and untrue. If you find my arguments unconvincing, a simple "you're wrong" or "that's not a good argument" would have sufficed. You claim I "don't know from Econ or Phil" - I presume that means "I don't understand economics or philosophy." Perhaps, but it appears you don't understand how to consistently write intelligible English sentences. Maybe we can help one another haha.