Sunday, January 8, 2017

Debate with a Utilitarian, part III: On self-ownership, and the conditions under which it may be rightly violated

This is a continuation of the transcript of my debate with a utilitarian acquaintance I’m calling Sean.  Parts I and II can be read here and here, respectively.  Sean’s text is in red italics and all emphasis is added by me to assist in quick-scanning our respective arguments.


Sean: So, why do you start with the assumption of self-ownership?  And, to get more to the point, under what conditions are you willing to violate a person's self-ownership?  (Because, really, 100% self-ownership sounds a bit like anarchy, so we'd better establish these limits before we talk about taxes)

Me: In a sentence, because I think it best comports with the most fundamental moral instincts held by human beings the world over.

It think self-ownership is theoretically equivalent to the golden rule by definition: the notion that you oughtn't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself implies that there are distinct selves, one belonging to you and others belonging to others, and that people have autonomy over themselves.

And I think that golden rule arose independently in the moral codes of dozens of cultures that had next to zero contact with one another historically, such that it strikes at the heart of whatever it is we conceive as moral behavior.

Sean: Interesting interpretation. What are the limits? That is, at what point can one violate the autonomy of another?

Me: To rob someone of control over their own body, time, energy or property is to wrong that person. Absent context, it is an immoral act. That wrong can only be justified in context if it's a situation where "the ends justify the means," which can only be the case if three conditions are met:

1.     Failure to obtain the ends must lead to more injustice, on net, than the act in question.

2.     The link between the means and ends must be highly certain; there must be little doubt that the act in question will directly and infallibly produce the intended result.

3.     There must exist no alternatives courses of action or inaction that are likely to achieve the same ends in a morally superior way.

Applying this is not an exact science and smart people will disagree about when these conditions are or are not met, but it's the test I use if I'm considering whether to do something which might violate some ethical rule.

Sean: So, then, to re-phrase: violation of someone's autonomy may occur if it is done so to prevent a highly certain greater violation of autonomy (either degree, quantity of persons, or combination thereof). Is this correct?

(I'm not starting another consequentialist vs deontologist train - just making sure I understand your frame)

Me: And is highly certain/likely to succeed in preventing it. More or less that's right. You can see how that's compatible with a big chunk of consequentialist thinking which hopefully is our common ground for proceeding.

Now, autonomy violations might not be the only acts which are immoral, yet might be justified by the ends-justify-means conditions.  Perhaps lying or cheating or breaking a promise might also fit.

Sean: Sounds good - I was hoping so, and wanted to confirm.

Now, who is considered covered by these obligations? Who is considered to have autonomy?

Me: Living adult human beings. Where to draw the line between childhood and adulthood, and what rights children may have, are separate questions we could get into if you like.

Another way of putting it is this: there are certain acts that almost all human societies see as immoral on face: killing, rape, theft, assault, etc. I'm not saying you can never do any of those things under any circumstances – I am just saying there should be a strong bias against it.  If you're going to engage in one of those activities on the consequentialist justification of greatest good for the greatest number, you better be damn sure you're right about what those consequences will be.

And, almost all of those "immoral in the abstract" activities involve violating someone's self-ownership. I.e., most philosophers view it as a pretty safe assumption that killing is wrong outside of certain extreme circumstances.

Sean: So, all of these immoral acts seem to be between people. Do you make allowance for circumstances beyond anyone's control?

You would be ok with violating the self-ownership of a murderer to prevent a murder.  But, would you be ok with violating the self-ownership of a bystander to prevent an avoidable death? Say, if I confiscate some of your surplus food to give to someone who is starving?

Me: So I don't view murder and starvation as the same. One is worse than the other. That may not make sense to an absolutist consequentialist because the ultimate consequence is the same (death). But I see one of those things as merely tragic, and the other as something worse than tragic: unjust.

Put another way: starvation makes me sad and want to help. Murder makes me angry and want to punish (or at least willing to forcibly prevent it).

I fully grant that if I and my family were starving, I'd probably be willing to pull a Jean Valjean and steal sustenance to save my life. I might even be willing to steal on someone else's behalf. I don't know if that would make it right though.  (And remember, if there are other ways by which we might feed the starving people besides theft, it would still fail my third condition.)

Sean: I understand, and I disagree. And, it's still a transfer of resources from one party to another. My concern was charity vs tax

Me: Right, but the distinction between charity and tax is super important! I have no problem with transferring resources, that's what the market is all about.

Sean: Well, we were arguing over if a life saved by a government from incidental death (i.e. government-provided smallpox vaccine) could be counted against a life taken by the government.  As you can guess, I equate the two (as I equate murder/starvation and charity/tax).

So, can you justify the difference between tragedy and injustice? You were descriptive before - can you prescribe?

Me: Right, and that's another instance of how strict utilitarianism doesn't comport with so many human moral intuitions, which from my view is evidence of its flaws as a moral theory (but not from yours, because you see those intuitions as mere brain states, sourced from evolution, that have no philosophical merit).

Sean: If you think this is strict utilitarianism, let me tell you about some of my other calculation!  But, I'd say this is entirely in line with other human moral intuitions

Me: I could say the same about "if you think I'm an anarchist, let me show you some of my friends..."

(Reader's note: At this point I will skip over a portion of our debate, which you can find excerpted in Part IV).

Sean: Please answer this: The source of your argument seems to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive ("But I see one of those things as merely tragic, and the other as something worse than tragic: unjust"). Are justice and injustice merely the result of one's feelings? Then, at what point are the feelings of the downtrodden accounted?

The Golden Rule has another edge. "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you". I would have others save my life from the fell clutches of circumstance, and I would have others force me to save my fellow humans. Rawls' still-serviceable Veil demonstrates this basic human sentiment - if I find myself at the bottom of the ladder, I care not if it is by tragedy or injustice, nor if my salvation comes by charity or tax. As fundamental as your principle of self-ownership is the human desire to be aided in one's time of need, and by force if necessary.

This is the cry of every starving pauper, and upon this cadence turn the wheels of Revolution. By what chant did the citizens of Paris march on Versailles? The Russians against the Czar? The Chinese against their Emperors? "Bread". What could be more powerful and more fundamental than this feeling of injustice so strong it would bring great nations to their knees? If we speak of universally-acknowledged ethical truths, I think the masses of humanity spoke rather loudly those days.

Me: You ask: “Are justice and injustice merely the result of one's feelings?” I answer: Only if you define all non-physical concepts as “the result of one’s feelings.” Injustice is a theory about morality.  It is primarily cerebral.  It may well stir emotions, and be informed by them, but it is different than base human urges like hunger or pain.

You ask, in effect, what difference it makes to those at the bottom, whether their salvation comes from charity or tax?  Maybe none, at the moment they are starving.  But it does make a difference to others in society at that moment, and maybe even to the paupers over the long term.  The economic implications may influence their ability to get a job, or even their incentive to get a job, and improve their station more permanently.  And in the moment they do succeed, at long last, in elevating themselves and their family members from the hell of poverty, it would matter to them quite a bit if another person felt entitled to take what they had only recently gained and give it to someone else in more dire straits.  Nobody values their property more dearly, nor will defend what is theirs more ferociously, then former paupers.

And when it comes to things a fundamental as death, even the downtrodden can recognize the difference between murder and accident. It may make no difference to a golfer whether he dies instantly from a bolt of lightning or dies instantly from a murderer’s bullet through his brain, but his family would certainly notice the difference, and would likely want the murderer brought to justice (for reasons that have little to do with his proclivity to murder again).

When the citizens of Paris, Russia and China were driven to revolt, whom were they revolting against?  Rich people generally?  Or did they seek to overthrow their GOVERNMENTS?  And if there was usually significant overlap between those two groups, might there be a reason for that?  No private entrepreneur had become rich in 18th Century France by minding his own business and peacefully trading at the local market.  Without the power of the state at his disposal, King Louis could not have seized the wealth necessary to build Versailles, and the inequality of wealth that struck the Frenchmen as so unjust could not have arisen. In each case, someone with an Army was using it to enrich himself, build shrines to his glory, conquer and repress foreign lands, etc.  Citizens of such regimes were victims of horrible violence if they spoke out against this waste, and victims of theft each time they were taxed to support such obscenities. Their poverty was not merely tragic, but unjust, and they were right to riot. 

Of the Golden Rule, you say “I would have others save my life from the fell clutches of circumstance.”  So would I; by all means, let’s save people!  It isn’t saving people I have a problem with.  Theft is what I don’t like.  And in the moment you’re robbing Peter with designs on using what’s stolen to pay Paul, it isn’t Paul who is having something “done unto” him.  “Do” is a verb conveying action, and just like the 10 Commandments, the Golden Rule guides people’s actions in a very direct sense.  You cannot define actions so broadly that the Golden Rule ENTAILS doing unto others what you would NOT have them do unto you, lest the saying become a contradiction.

You say “I would have others force me to save my fellow humans.”  No you wouldn’t; that is a contradiction. By definition, you cannot consent to be forced to do something.  If you would have someone prompt you to do X, their prompting does not qualify as a use of force.  If they had to force you to do it, you wouldn’t have done it otherwise. If you agree to it freely then no force is required; if force was used, then you didn’t agree to it freely.  (The only exception is matters of competency, where someone can anticipate in advance that they will soon be in an altered mental state, and make their wishes known while they still have their wits about them, but that’s pretty clearly not the situation the Golden Rule was designed to govern.)  Even the situations in which I do condone taxation are still a deviation from the Golden Rule.  I don’t let myself squiggle out of it.

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