Governing Least: What’s Really Wrong with Utilitarianism

One argument against utilitarianism is that no one actually follows it.  I call this the Argument from Hypocrisy.  A better objection, though, is that even highly scrupulous utilitarians don’t comply with their stated principles; I call this the Argument from Conscience.   In Governing Least, Moller powerfully develops a parallel objection: While utilitarians often urge self-sacrifice, they rarely preach other-sacrifice.  But given their principles, they totally should!  Moller’s explanation is so well-phrased that I decided to reproduce a complete section.

Challenges to living with utilitarianism tend to focus on what I called options— the option we think we normally have to flout the overall good when we rather sleep in, or buy a subwoofer instead of donating to charity. But what really cuts ice are constraints on our actions. Singer and others emphasize that they can accept that they do not, as utilitarians, have the option to loaf about when they could help others, however much they fall short. But what is really hard about living with utilitarianism isn’t self-sacrifice but other-sacrifice, paradoxically enough. This wouldn’t be so if we were purely self- interested, but we aren’t, and the prospect of exploiting others for the greater good thus terrifies us. Of course, it’s rare that harming innocents will produce much good, but it’s easy enough to come up with cases:

Grandma: Grandma is a kindly soul who has saved up tens of thousands of dollars in cash over the years. One fine day you see her stashing it away under her mattress, and come to think that with just a little nudge you could cause her to fall and most probably die. You could then take her money, which others don’t know about, and redistribute it to those more worthy, saving many lives in the process. No one will ever know. Left to her own devices, Grandma would probably live a few more years, and her money would be discovered by her unworthy heirs who would blow it on fancy cars and vacations. Liberated from primitive deontic impulses by a recent college philosophy course, you silently say your goodbyes and prepare to send Grandma into the beyond.

If this seems too outré to take seriously, we can try this instead:

Child: Your son earns a good living as a doctor but is careless with some of his finances. You sometimes help him out by organizing his receipts and invoices. One day you have the opportunity to divert $1,000 from his funds to a charity where the money will do more good; neither he nor anyone else will ever notice the difference, besides the beneficiaries. You decide to steal your child’s money and promote the overall good.

Recall that we’ve already set aside ecumenical views that side with deontic morality in practice. So it’s no use to protest that the true utilitarian theory has some esoteric feature that lets us ignore the case, say because we should only follow rules with good consequences, and killing those around us to reduce hunger would have terrible consequences overall. The only views left on the table at this point are precisely those that are willing to contemplate that, at least in some circumstances, rubbing out Grandma and stealing from our children is the right thing to do. The problem, then, is that most people don’t seem able to accept even that they ought to aspire to such behavior, let alone engage in it. Exploiting those we love isn’t an ideal we fail to attain, it’s the very antipode of the ideals themselves. Just consider contexts in which we are specifically seeking to articulate them, as when we instruct our children. Do revisionist utilitarians sit down their sons and daughters and implore them to steal from their friends when it is possible to do so undetected and to divert the money to famine relief? There are many books by revisionist utilitarians telling us that we ought to do more to live up to the demands of morality through self- sacrifice; the fact that there are so few urging us to engage in more other-sacrifice would be surprising if revisionists really could take their philosophy seriously in practice.

Notice, again, that Moller is not invoking the Argument from Hypocrisy.  “The problem, then, is that most people don’t seem able to accept even that they ought to aspire to such behavior, let alone engage in it. ”  In other words, utilitarians don’t preach other-sacrifice, but fail to practice what they preach.  They barely even preach it!  Suspicious, to say the least.

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Are You Being Played?

I suspect Scott Adams has been playing his listeners. I’ve suspected this for months, but have only discussed this with one person. Until now.

I’ll go ahead and tell you now what I think has been going on.

I believe he is using the technique of “pacing and leading” to get his “conservative” listeners to change their minds on “climate change” (and a few other topics as well). He plays the neutral “voice of reason” with his audience who seems to mostly be Right Statist, but he is much more Left Statist than he lets on. (I so dislike using the terms “Left” and Right” in political discussions, since there’s really only Statist or not. Yet sometimes it seems necessary to examine the interplay between these mirror images.)

Back when he first started discussing the topic, I got the distinct feeling this was what he was doing. In spite of his protests of “I’m just looking at the argument– I don’t know because I can’t know. I’m not a climate scientist.” it seemed to me he was going to take the alarmists’ side when it was all said and done. He gave clues to that effect. Because he is a government supremacist, after all.

And this is the general arc of what I’ve watched happening.

He started off leaning slightly to the skeptical side. So as to agree with the listeners he was (apparently) wanting to influence. Pacing them. He has been slowly and carefully moving slightly more to the alarmist side since then. Two steps forward and one step back. Leading them to where he seems to want them to go.

He has straight out said he uses persuasion (and hypnosis) techniques in his writing and podcasting. He has described these techniques and pointed out examples when they are used by others. Then he uses the techniques on his listeners. He’s doing it right in the open. I believe his intent is to influence his listeners to move away from Right Statism toward Left Statism– maybe to bring them to a center position.

Can I prove it? No. He would say I’m mind reading and there is no written or stated evidence that this is what he wants to do. As I’ve said before, since I can’t read minds I am left with reasoning out what someone is thinking by their actions. I could be wrong, but I doubt it. The future will tell.

I still listen to Scott because I find him interesting and because I still find it informative to get insight into the workings of the statist mind. But I try to mentally vaccinate myself against his persuasion while doing so by knowing what he’s doing. Who knows if I’m protected sufficiently.

Years ago, when I first started reading his Dilbert blog, he once claimed to be “libertarian, but without the crazy stuff“. I pointed out that the “crazy stuff”, as he defined it, is also called consistency. Consistency, based in principles. Things which get in the way of a full-on embrace of statism. Once you believe it’s OK to govern others and use government violence to force others to do what you want and stop them from doing what you don’t want them to do, there seems to be nothing that’s too far to justify. This is the road he travels. He expects you to follow. And he may be tricking people into following him.

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Dan Moller’s Governing Least

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority is definitely my favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  Dan Moller’s new Governing Least, however, is definitely now my second-favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  The two books have much in common: Both use common-sense ethics to argue for libertarian politics.  Both are calm, logical, and ever-mindful of potential criticisms.  Both strive to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with them.  Both are packed with broader insights.  And despite these parallels, both are deeply original.

So what’s most original about Moller’s position?  Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion:

[I]n my account libertarianism emerges from everyday moral beliefs we have about when we are permitted to shift our burdens onto others. In fact, my account intentionally downplays the role of rights, and is motivated by doubts about what we may demand of others, rather than outrage about what others demand of us.

The effrontery is most blatant when you speak in the first person:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

The fundamental objection to Moller’s position, he thinks, is to claim that governments have “emergent moral powers.”  But Moller firmly denies this.  Governments are just groups of people, so they are morally obliged to follow the same moral principles as everyone else.  While this may seem like libertarian question-begging, there’s nothing uniquely libertarian about it:

It is notable that many who wish to block rights-based objections to state action are nevertheless eager to enter their own moral objections to what the state does. Many of those unsympathetic to attacks on taxation rooted in individual rights also portray the absence of welfare provisions or various immigration policies as “unconscionable.” There is nothing inconsistent about this; the one set of moral claims may be right and the other confused. But the objection then cannot be based on the emergent moral powers of the state. We cannot both reject appeals to individuals rights on the general grounds that morality has nothing to tell us about what may emerge from government institutions, and then do just that, substituting our own preferred brand of interpersonal morality. Once we notice this, support for emergence should shrink drastically, since it will only come from those who think there are no policies of the state that can be rejected on fundamental
moral grounds. The non- emergence assumption per se has no particular ideological leanings.

But doesn’t common-sense morality admit that rights to person and property are not absolute?  Of course; exceptions abound.  Moller sternly emphasizes, however, that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.  In his “Emergency” hypothetical, for example, you steal $1000 under duress.  What then?

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

A related principle is worth mentioning as well:

Need: my warrant for harming you depends on how bad my situation is. I cannot harm you if I am doing fine already merely in order to improve my position still further. I may be permitted to take your $1,000 to avert a physical threat, but not in order to make a lucrative investment in order to get even richer.

The political implications are expansive, starting with:

A welfare state justified in virtue of overriding reasons to promote the good of the beneficiaries incurs these residual obligations. Flouting them amounts to unfair burden- shifting. What would it look like actually to satisfy them? For starters, if I were the beneficiary of some emergency medical procedure that a third party compelled others to contribute to— say a state agency— I would be obligated to
repay those charged for my benefit, possibly with some compensatory surcharge. If unable to pay, I would be required to pay in installments, with the agency keeping track of my income and tax records to ensure that my repayment were in line with my means…

Moreover, in repaying, my attitude toward my fellow citizens ought to be one of gratitude for coming to my assistance, as opposed to viewing these services as entitlements due to me as a matter of citizenship. This may seem curious: by hypothesis, the services I received made it past the threshold, meaning that the wealth transfers involved were permissible, and since I am repaying, they won’t
even be net transfers in the long run, barring misfortune. Depending on how badly I needed aid, aiding may even have been obligatory on a third party. Why should I express gratitude for others fulfilling their duties? Consider the Gallic shrug— that supreme expression of indifference at someone else’s misfortunes, while disclaiming all responsibility for rectifying them, frequently encountered
in Parisian cafés. Why shouldn’t I shrug my Gallic shrug at the rich complaining about their tax bill, and point out I merely got what I was entitled to, as would they in a similar situation?

This complaint would be apt if appropriate moral responses were a function solely of whether our acts are required or permissible. But there are all kinds of inappropriate moral responses even when what we have done is permissible or when what the other has done was required. If we are to meet for lunch and an urgent business affair obtrudes itself, I may be permitted to skip our lunch, but
I shouldn’t treat putting you out lightly. What makes a Gallic shrug a vice here is that beneath the outer layer of permissibility there remains an inner structure whereby you have been harmed for my sake, which ought to be a source of concern, leading to some appropriate expression of regret if I am a decent person.  And the same is true in the case of welfare services. This is easy to ignore because
of the opaque veils of state bureaucracy. But behind the faceless agency lie people who are harmed for the sake of benefiting me.

Governing Least manages to be at once readable and dense.  And though you can’t tell from the passages I just quoted, Moller also repeatedly appeals to and grapples with cutting-edge social science.  What, for example, should philosophers think about Greg Clark’s work on the long-run heritability of social status?  Moller’s take will surprise many of you.

Last question: Why do I still prefer Huemer to Moller?  Intellectually, because Huemer’s appeal to individual rights is just more clear-cut than Moller’s objection to “burden-shifting.”  Furthermore, Huemer focuses on the broader case for libertarianism, while Moller self-consciously focuses on opposition to the welfare state.*  And while Moller’s book is beautifully written and well-organized, Huemer’s is stellar on both counts.

Thus, if you’re only going to read one book of libertarian political philosophy, I still say you should read The Problem of Political Authority.  If you’re willing to read two such books, however, read Governing Least.  I loved it.

* Moller: “I also ignore the many noneconomic causes that libertarians have sometimes taken up, like free speech, gay marriage, and drug legalization. This is the fun part of libertarianism and requires little heroism to defend. Many disagree with such policies, but few think their sponsors cruel or ungenerous, while resistance to the welfare state and programs intended to foster economic equality evoke precisely that response.”

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Steve Silverman: Jury Nullification – What It Is, and How To Use It (29m)

This episode features an interview of activist Steve Silverman of FlexYourRights.org by Tom Woods, host of the Tom Woods Show. They discuss the principles and applications of jury nullification, when juries refuse to convict on the basis that the allegedly violated law is unjust. Purchase books on jury nullification on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (29m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntaryist voices”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

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My Provisional Support For “Borders”

The only legitimate justification for something like a “national border” would be to separate a free territory from any unfree territories around it. In order to protect the people in the free territory from the statists surrounding them.

This situation doesn’t exist anywhere in the world because there are no free territories (other than small scale experimentsmaybe). America hasn’t been a free territory since America was replaced by “the United States” with the ratification of the U. S. Constitution. As long as there are “taxes” and other counterfeit “laws” and politicians in a territory, it is not free. Even though there are differences in degree, there are no differences in kind.

As it is, national borders are rather like the internal fences in a feedlot. They separate different groups of cattle from each other for the purposes of those who exploit them. It’s not for the good of the cattle. It would be genius to brainwash the cattle into believing it is.

In our human situation, it’s as if the cattle in one pen are getting angry at the cattle who hop the fence instead of focusing their anger at those who manage the feedlot. “We must remain ‘King of the Dung Heap’ in our little pen!

Those humans who hop the fence may be hoping to avoid a looming appointment on the kill floor, or maybe they hope for more food on the other side. But if they are looking for liberty they are doing it wrong and looking in the wrong place. Still, I can’t blame them for doing something in their desperation, even if it amounts to jumping out of the fire and into the smoldering kindling.

And, the ones who hop the fence and then demand to make this side similar to the side they were desperate to escape are being stupid and are committing evil.

To be clear: nothing excuses archation by fence hoppers. Nor by fence defenders.

Instead of abandoning principles over your “border”, why not make this side of the fence free. Create a condition of liberty. That means zero “taxes”, zero counterfeit “laws” of any kind, and zero politicians. This side of the fence cannot be a State.

Then, and only then, I’ll help you secure the border from anyone who tries to bring a little bit of archation into this free territory– while welcoming all others (because they couldn’t be a problem). Anyone else should be free to cross this border in either direction with no delay or difficulty whatsoever.

Because it’s always up to the believers to convince the skeptics, it’s up to those who support the “borders” to make this a free territory and convince me to support their walls and fences. If they have a workable plan which doesn’t involve me compromising food with poison or liberty with statism, I’ll jump right in.

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Inconsistency is a Hallmark of Statism

Statism is so internally inconsistent that statists hallucinate inconsistency everywhere else, in everyone else. They can’t even imagine anything like consistency.

I’ve seen statists hallucinate that the right of self-defense somehow justifies their support of an armed gang of badged government employees, funded with stolen money, imposing counterfeit rules at gunpoint, with little or no accountability. They imagine that recognizing this gang for what it is is somehow an endorsement of a free-for-all Mad Max world. They come to believe it’s somehow different to shoot a rapist in the act of raping than it is to shoot a law enforcer committing an act of law enforcement.

I’ve seen statists claim that not supporting a government “border wall”, funded with stolen money, built on stolen land, and maintained with stolen money, police state tactics, and coercion, is the same as not respecting private property rights. This is a hallucination caused by statism in the brain.

I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of examples of your own.

The statism requires this internal inconsistency in order to be maintained. They don’t want to admit they have a problem, so they project their traits onto others so they won’t feel bad. Being so inconsistent, they see inconsistency where it doesn’t exist. They have a psychological need to find inconsistency in others to excuse it in themselves.

If people were internally consistent– in reason and principles– they wouldn’t be statists.

Consistency doesn’t guarantee an individual is right (you can be consistently wrong), but inconsistency guarantees an individual is wrong.

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