I recently had a pleasant and very lengthy debate with a friend of a friend, who I’ll call Sean. Sean calls himself a “utilitarian with authoritarian tendencies” and proved a very capable adversary. Our discussion was so far-reaching that I’ll have to divide the transcript into four different parts (for now). The opening part of our discussion was about the source of political authority and which human rights are most fundamental.
A transcript is reproduced below, with extremely minor revisions for grammar and brevity. Our original debate did not take place in a rich-text format, so all emphasis is added by me, based solely on what I found most noteworthy for those scanning our comments. As always, names are changed, and text which isn’t my own is shown in italicized colored font, like this.
Our debate has been delayed for now, but if it resumes I will be sure to add what follows at the bottom.
Sean: So, I've been told you are a fairly strong Libertarian - I'd like to know more about the details of your overarching political beliefs and your personal philosophical foundations. My own views are utilitarian with authoritarian tendencies, so I'm interested in the source of your own beliefs.
Me: Strong libertarian is a fair description, politically. Within the population of self-described libertarians, I lean left, but relative to the country at large I've pretty successfully expunged any preference for one major party over the other. I voted for Gary Johnson in both 2016 and 2012 but I'm hoping Justin Amash runs in 2020; he or Rand Paul might be the only ones who could make me vote Republican.
I'm a little more diversified in my philosophical foundations. I was initially drawn to libertarianism from a Lockean property rights/self-ownership perspective, but college discussions showed me there's at least some truth to many philosophical frameworks and I can certainly make the case for libertarianism on utilitarian grounds if you like.
Where we won't see eye-to-eye is authoritarianism. I guess to start us off I'd ask, from where do you derive the authority you claim? Why do you (or whatever government agency you would have do your bidding) get to tell other people what to do, and send people with guns to arrest them if they don't comply?
Sean: Ok, that gives me a bit more context, although I'm sure we'll flesh out both our positions along the course of our discussion. To clarify - authoritarian in capacity if not always in action.
The authority for this claim is the utilitarian axiom: only after material needs are met is any other form of thought possible. The person in a "state of nature" has the theoretical capacity to do anything, but the utilitarianism strives to provide him with the material capacity to actually accomplish something (including conceiving of the idea of the "state of nature" in the first place - philosophers tended to be aristocrats or monks for a reason)
The ultimate goal is human flourishing. Only after we meet our material needs can we achieve any other goal. Securing the resources needed to accomplish these goals takes precedence over rights, freedoms, liberty, etc. although forms of these concepts may be part of the package (understanding they are subservient to the ultimate goal). We start with the basics: food, water, shelter, physical security. A human is capable of little if they die of hunger, thirst, exposure, or violence. And, if any of these are insecure, an individual's world revolves around re-establishing them (if one is concerned about the next meal, that doesn't leave physical/mental/emotion capacity for much else).
Let's include more abstract forms of material welfare: belonging to a community/family, education, access to various cultures, etc. Access to these permits a more secure, complex, and motivated individual capable of producing more stuff for the betterment of the whole. Belonging to a community and family builds one's mental well-being and emotional security. Access to education encourages specialization and allows past knowledge to enhance one's current productivity. Access to various cultures and cultural products introduces new ideas and encourages understanding/communication between different individuals and communities, etc. After securing these many material needs we arrive at the ultimate: a healthy, productive, creative person capable of self-actualization.
"Freedom of Speech" means little to the starving. "Freedom of Assembly" is useless to the isolated. "Property Rights" are a cruel irony to those dying of exposure, as is "Freedom of the Press" to the illiterate. And of what use are any of these abstract philosophical concepts to one not educated enough to conceive of them?
Unfortunately, we live in a world of limited resources inefficiently managed. A society where all persons reach this optimal state has yet to emerge. The primary task of government is to shape society to more effectively produce and distribute resources for the flourishing of all persons, by force if needed. Examples:
1. Ensuring the physical security of all persons through the use of police and military forces.
2. Providing universal access to the necessities of life: food, water, shelter, healthcare (and, for some elements of healthcare, mandating their use. Example: vaccines)
3. Ensuring universal access to education, cultural products, and participation in a community.
4. Ensuring universal access to a market where goods and services are exchanged, and enforcing common standards to facilitate exchange.
5. Preventing arbitrary discrimination against various subgroups of persons. And, in general, redistributing resources to accomplish the above-stated goal.
Instances when a government agency might send people with guns to arrest someone:
1. Illegally killing a person.
2. Resisting the government's attempt to redistribute their resources (i.e. tax resistance)
3. Continuing to dump toxic waste in a river after being instructed to cease.
4. And, in general, the government intervenes when someone's independent activities produce more negative effects than positive (as measured against the above-stated goal). So, if the government must build a new school and the most efficient way to raise the funds needed is to tax a certain segment of the population, then that is what the government must do. On the other hand, if the public demands "Avengers" movies, and the market does a fine job of providing this product, then the government has no reason to intervene.
And, I don't advocate dictatorship. Government must be framed to prevent abuses of power by any one person or group, as well as appropriately checked to ensure it fulfills the mandate. In a sense, the people have one right - the right to have society's resources efficiently distributed. From this material welfare all else is possible.
So, two questions to you: Can I be considered free to do something if I lack the material capacity to actually do so?
Me: I’ll start at the top and work my way down to your closing question.
You cite as justification for your authority “the utilitarian axiom [that] only after material needs are met is any other form of thought possible.” You justify this with a series of observations about the hierarchy of human needs. I’ll grant you those observations are mostly accurate – I just don’t see why they give you any special authority.
You seem to frame the provision of material needs as something pre-political: a necessary condition for any political theory to emerge in the first place. This doesn’t work, though, because the provision of those needs, and even the identification of those needs, are themselves inherently political/philosophical questions! Even if I accept your claim that “the ultimate goal is human flourishing [and] only after we meet our material needs can we achieve any other goal,” (which is itself a theoretical claim) that doesn’t answer the following questions:
1. What defines our material needs? Materials we need in order to what – survive? Be comfortable? Philosophize? Self-actualize? Achieve one’s fullest potential? Be happy? You say “flourish”, but what does flourishing entail and how do we know when we’ve gotten there? What distinguishes our “material needs” from our material wants? Is the distinction preserved when we enter the field of what you call “more abstract forms of material welfare”? Is there a neat division between needs and wants, or is it more of a gradual, sliding spectrum? Who gets to draw the line, and why?
2. Who is “we”? Whose needs are we to provide for, in order to achieve our goals? Our own? Those of our families? Our local communities? Our countrymen? All human beings on earth? All living beings on earth? Who gets to decide whose needs will be provided for or prioritized, and why?
3. What are the best, fairest, most effective or most equitable mechanisms for providing those yet-to-be-specified needs to those yet-to-be-identified people? Which of us gets to pick those mechanisms, and why?
My point is that each of these questions is inherently political in nature, and answering them requires theories (like Locke’s, among many others) about just who exactly is entitled to just what exactly. And the final question in each series is just a re-phrasing of the first one I asked you earlier: even if I accept all of your utilitarian axioms and starting points, why do YOU have the authority to enact your own highly subjective application of that philosophy in practice?
I’ve mentioned that I can advocate libertarianism on purely utilitarian grounds. I know a few conservative, fundamentalist Christians who believe they can do the same for their ideology. To them, “human flourishing” is defined by abidance to God’s will; they lump in “spiritual needs” to serve God and humble oneself before Christ with the same vague cluster of community-based and culture-based “needs” you identified. You say “Let's include more abstract forms of material welfare;” I say, no, let’s not! Each of us would endorse radically different applications of force if given the chance.
If everyone on earth tried to use force to achieve their own sincere conception of human flourishing and what people really need, it would truly be a war of all against all, and probably nobody’s conception of flourishing would actually be reached. Clearly, we need some way of selecting who gets to use force, in accordance with whose conception of “needs” or “flourishing” or welfare, and that’s where questions of political authority come in. So I’ll reiterate my question: why do you have authority over me?
You say “Securing the resources needed to accomplish these goals takes precedence over rights, freedoms, liberty, etc.”. Why? Sure, people need food and shelter and in order to conceive of the state of nature – got it. Most people already have food and shelter, though, and lots of them have already conceived of abstract conceptions of rights and liberty. How many of them must?
You say the answer is “all persons,” writing “A society where all persons reach this optimal state has yet to emerge. The primary task of government is to shape society to more effectively produce and distribute resources for the flourishing of all persons, by force if needed.” Well, one way for government to shape society to ensure the flourishing of all persons, by force if needed, would be to identify anyone who isn’t currently flourishing, and then kill them. The result would be that 100% of all persons remaining would be flourishing – ta da!
I extend you the compliment of assuming you’re not okay with this strategy. Why? Do certain acts strike you as morally meaningful in and of themselves? And more importantly, when you say “all persons,” are you referring merely to a portion of those presently existing, or does the absolute number also matter?
Imagine two worlds, A and B. In world A, there are four billion people – all of them flourishing. In world B, there are eight billion people, only seven billion of which are flourishing. Which world is preferable?
I vote for world B. If you do too, then it seems you care more about the flourishing of *as many persons as possible* than you do about the flourishing of “all persons.” This has implications for your claim that it’s government’s job to ensure “universal” provision of XYZ.
To put the debate on your home turf, I believe that respecting and defending everyone’s political liberty is the best way to attain the flourishing of *as many persons as possible*. Freedom of speech, assembly and press may mean little to the illiterate, isolated or uneducated, but they are an excellent way to educate and connect as many people as possible. Property rights may mean little to the starving or cold, but they are an excellent way to feed, house and clothe as many people as possible.
If you disagree, then it might be best to make our debate a bit more concrete by diving into the specific policy implications of our competing worldviews. I’ll start with the numbered lists of examples you provided. 1) I’m fine with police and military (obviously) but think both have horrendous and dangerous abuses in the modern world and need to be drastically reigned in. 2) The government is not good at providing universal anything, whereas the market has proven quite capable at providing food, shelter and clothing to as many people as possible and would do the same with healthcare and education if given the chance. 3) I don’t even know what you mean by “cultural products and participation in community” but suspect it isn’t nearly so morally imperative as to justify violent coercion and I don’t want the government anywhere near it. 4) Defending property rights is within government’s role, and markets will emerge on their own from there. 5) The market is also better than government at preventing discrimination.
Sending people with guns to arrest a murderer is fine by me, and also a river-polluter if the water is owned/used by someone else (since that violates property rights). Tax evasion is a different story though, and it goes back to authority. Nobody has any right to redistribute my resources without my consent, whether or not they put on a funny looking outfit and call themselves the government. I think taxation is basically theft and would challenge you to come up with a philosophical distinction between the two.
I’m happy to debate whichever of those policy issues you prefer to zero-in on.
Lastly, you claim people have only one right: the right to have society’s resources efficiently distributed. I’d say we have three – life, liberty, and property – but if I had to boil it down to one I’d say the fundamental right is that of self-ownership, and that the others proceed logically from there. I would argue those two starting points are equally subjective, but in my experience many utilitarians like to fancy their ideology is somehow more objective or demonstrable than others. Are you among them? If so, why is the right to an efficient distribution of society’s resources (whatever those are…) more important or more real than the right to self-ownership?
Finally, to answer your question. “Can I be considered free to do something if I lack the material capacity to actually do so?” Clearly that depends on your definition of free. Freedom is a pretty vague word which means different things to different people, which is why libertarians are rather precise on the kind we care about: “political liberty”, defined as the absence of violent force or the coercive threat thereof. By our definition, yes, you are at liberty to do X, even if you presently lack the material capacity to do X. And I would distinguish that situation from one in which you have the material capacity to do X, but some other person is forcibly preventing you from doing so. The latter scenario is morally inferior, from my view. The former may be merely the product of fate or bad luck, and in any case is correctable if you subsequently acquire the material resources required, whereas the latter scenario is a direct result of human oppression and cannot be improved upon until someone else changes their behavior.
To recap, here’s a TLDR summary of the questions I asked you:
1. Seeing as you and I have different conceptions of what our material needs are, of what’s the best way to ensure they are provided/secured, and to whom they must be provided, why do you get the authority to enact your philosophy over mine?
2. Are you more concerned with the flourishing of “all persons,” or with the flourishing of “as many persons as possible,” – and why?
3. Is taxation theft? If not, what’s the difference?
4. Why is the right to an efficient distribution of society’s resources more important or “real” than the right to self-ownership?
(to be continued)