Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Red Pill: Freedom to Starve

There’s much that’s misleading in politics. But perhaps the worst offender is the common claim that Right-wing “libertarians” (e.g. ACT) champion the value of individual freedom. They stand for non-interference, but this “negative freedom” is only half the story. The more important aspect of freedom is opportunity.

Imagine you find yourself stuck down a well. Libertarians claim that you are perfectly free so long as everybody else leaves you alone, since that way you suffer no interference. But surely we can see that this is mistaken. If left alone, you would dwindle and die. That’s not any sort of freedom worth having. Real freedom requires that you be rescued from the well. Until that happens, you lack any opportunities to act and achieve your goals. And that is clearly what really matters.

Of course, most of us aren’t stuck down wells. But the example proves an important point. If you agree that the person stuck down the well lacks freedom, then you are committed to the view that freedom requires more than mere non-interference, for they suffer no lack of that!

For a more politically relevant example, consider the consequences of poverty. It is not enough to leave poor children alone: by letting them starve, we do not thereby make them “free” in any worthwhile sense. The fulfillment of basic needs is a prerequisite to any form of freedom worth having.

When right-wingers claim to stand for “freedom”, they conceal this crucial point. What they really stand for is non-interference, and that only means freedom for those who have the means to take advantage of it – freedom for the rich, in other words. Non-interference won’t free children from poverty any more than it will free the person stuck down the well. Sometimes freedom requires positive action.

Further, sometimes achieving an important freedom requires us to sacrifice a less important one. Do traffic laws count as “government interference”? Clearly the laws do restrict us, removing our right to drive wherever we please. But in return, we get functioning roads that enable us to actually get where we want to go. Some interference is justified for the sake of improving our real opportunities. This sacrifice yields a net benefit to our real freedom.

So how about poverty, then? Could tax similarly be justified on the grounds of freedom itself? Sure, the rich might have to give up their caviar. But if this enables the poor to meet their basic needs, get a decent education, and so forth, then this too looks like a net gain for freedom. More opportunities have been gained than lost. And that’s what really matters.

Non-interference is utterly worthless in the absence of opportunity. Ford used to say, “You can have any colour you want, so long as it’s black.” Some choice that is! But for people who lack options to begin with, that’s the only “freedom” that the Right wing has to offer. Don’t let the common rhetoric mislead you. They promote non-interference, whereas the Left promotes opportunity – thus enabling people to lead the lives they want to live. If you agree that it’s the latter sort of freedom that matters, you might find it better championed by the Greens than ACT.

43 comments:

  1. If it is fair to characterize the libertarian idea of freedom as "the freedom to starve," then perhaps I should characterize the socialist idea of freedom as "the freedom to steal."

    Sounds about right to me.

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  2. Really this is a bit silly Richard. I'm no Libertarian with a capital L, but I'd say they think anyone could volunteer to help the person in the well - as happens everyday in the real world, whether on the spur of the moment or as part of a voluntary employment agreement (e.g. fireman). The point is no-one else should be forced to help you.

    Also - your template displays incorrectly in Firefox 1.06 on OS-X. Not sure what the exact problem is, but the background image seems to overlie the leftmost two inches or so of the page.

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  3. I'm just curious, if you're stuck down a well, who will file the neccessary forms with FEMA to get your rescue operation rolling?

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  4. I dont think they really want to maximize freedom it is more an act of self justification.

    However I can defend the argument - I suggest that a Libiterian might argue that a person down a well can probably trade somthing to get out - for example his work for a couple of days if he is a person who can be trusted. Most people should be able to get out of the well and they may be unconcerned about most of those who remain in it.

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  5. Good points, all of them.

    As a practicing (but moderate) libertarian, I would suggest that winning the permanent gratitude of one other person is easily worth the effort spent in extricating him from a well. When you count the person's family and friends, the admiration of the community, and so forth... the whole thing begins to look like a very good deal even on the grounds of relatively narrow self-interest, with no need to invoke altruism even, let alone state compulsion.

    This is the reason for my somewhat dismissive comment above. I have great respect for Mr. Chappell as a thinker, but I disagree with him quite strongly here and think that he makes a couple of very serious errors in his critique of political libertarianism.

    First, the real world, in almost all cases, bears little resemblance to the situation of a person trapped in a well. The above essay acknowledges this, yet uses the well as a tool for generalizing about human experience anyway. I don't find this at all a consistent approach.

    Second, if we wish in principle to allow for a greater realm of choices to each human being, I fail to see how we benefit from creating an institution that is empowered to take those choices away, and from encouraging it to take away those choices whenever it thinks it can "help." Consider this for an example of what I mean.

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  6. Jason, I use the well example solely for making the conceptual point that the freedom we value consists in more than just non-interference.

    Moderate libertarians might argue that gov't non-interference would help boost real opportunities too. If so, that's fine. It's an empirical question which I don't tackle here. I'm simply arguing against those philosophical libertarians who think that government is in principle a violation of freedom.

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  7. you're the misleading dumbass who obviously hasn't studied economics before or read ACT's welfare policy

    http://www.act.org.nz/policy_socialwelfare.aspx

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  8. I'd just like to point out that there is a good way and a bad way to make the case for free-market political policies. Although my familiarity with ACT is small, I submit that the comment immediately above this one represents a decidely poor debating strategy.

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  9. I think Richards logic stands here and on his other posts on the subject, and I am curious as to why so many intelligent people disagree about this subject of freedom.

    Forget personal feelings … could anyone explain the precise point which cause them to treat 'freedom' ( to do anything you like I presume?) as more important than society enforced rules.

    Is it just sheer dislike of someone else intefering with what we want?
    Or more particularly interference by a government department seen as blundering and foolish?

    Or do you think it produces a limited society ? A less wealthy or less productive one?

    Do the rules imposed to simply keep things working, as in the road example, extract too great a cost ?( !)

    Or is it a basically emotional thing , an identification with the idea of 'being free.' Perhaps a result of finding oneself in a situation where one has been restricted by others opinions?
    I can certainly identify with that!

    Or is freedom a vague undefined ideal that has always been there in your mind?
    And of tax, is it natural resentment of something you regard absolutely as MINE being taken against one's will?

    Any more? ..

    We might as well have it all out in the open..

    I would certainly disagree about these propositions, but I suspect that there is a gulf, a divide that cannot be breached between peoples basic attitudes.
    Having little to do with reason in the first place, but basic conceptions and feelings.

    Perhaps .

    Anyone?

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  10. DavidL,

    Suppose I threw you into chains and demanded that you become my slave. I then produced a society that was willing to validate this decision; its members all declare that "society-enforced rules" are more important than your (presumably emotional) attachment to your freedom.

    Would you stand by your position then? If not, then we are no longer arguing about the importance of freedom, but merely about its proper extent.

    To give you a more serious answer, I do not value freedom primarily out of its emotional appeal, and nor should we conclude that merely being emotional about something means that we are necessarily misinformed about it.

    I value freedom because it is a reflection of individual human reason, which itself is inherently lacking in external constraints. Although I recognize that certain societal constraints are indeed necessary for the full flowering of human liberty, still, I would whenever possible choose the side of individual liberties, because to follow one's own reasons is a goal that all people desire. To restore human freedom is to restore something that is essential to the life of a proper human being.

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  11. I think that you are incorrectly describing the libertarian idea of freedom when you characterize it as "non-interferience". The libertarian (or perhaps one type of libertarian) concept of freedom is more accurately described as "non-agressive interferience".

    If you make that distinction, I think your arguments get much more difficult. Traffic laws may be some sort of interferience, but they are de minimis. It is not really all that agressive or violent to say that if you drive on the road in this country you will drive on the left. It is however agressive to send arm officials to your neighbors house to either get his money or lock him up.

    I don't think you are taking the libertarian concept of freedom all that seriously. The basic idea is that you can't use the hired guns of government to make otherwise peaceful people do what you want. To catagorize this as "non-interferience" seems to weaken the idea. It is moral opposition to creating economic oppertunity using the barrel of a gun.

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  12. Stanley, I'm discussing commonplace political rhetoric and ideology. If ACT is more moderate in its policies, then that's fine. It doesn't affect anything I've said here. And neither does economics, because I'm talking about ends, not the means with which to achieve them. (See my response to Jason above.)

    DavidL, I don't quite follow your comment, but I might be with Jason on this one -- I think freedom is hugely important. I just don't think (some) right-wingers have the appropriate conception of what (the valuable sort of) freedom IS.

    Mike, the only difference between tax and traffic laws is how you choose to describe them. It's not really all that aggressive or violent to say that if you work in this country you will have dues deducted from the income in the form of tax. On the other hand, to send armed officials in pursuit of people who run red lights, and perhaps force them to pay fines, prevent them from driving in future, or even lock them up... well, that sounds downright aggressive and violent!

    Two further points:

    1) avoiding all "aggressive interference" is still insufficient for freedom, as proved by the man stuck down the well.

    2) Property rights depend upon aggressive interference. See here.

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  13. Hi jason thanks for a response.
    Who would disagree with your last comment?
    Yes, the proper extent of freedom is the question.

    Interestingly, as Richard agrees.

    My comments though, were about the point at which freedoms DO come into conflict with larger societies well being.

    I was hoping someone would reveal whether there is a basic character which leads us to set DIFFERENT limits on freedom.

    I used to think it was a matter of simply pointing out facts and we would all eventually agree what rights would be considered fair, especially regarding poperty.

    I had occasion to try that a few times and was left with the impression that there are some very strong attitudes .. with NO chance of resolving them in practice.

    Hopefully I am wrong.

    And I suppose I am a bit off topic .

    sorry.

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  14. Richard I will throw my hat into the ring with another imortant different conception of freedom as distinct from either positive or negative freedom in the classical liberal sense. This is Pettit's notion of freedom as non-domination.

    The idea is that you are free iff you are non-dominated. This means being in a position where no-one can arbitarily interfere with you.

    Note the word arbitary is going to do a lot of work here, but I think the ideal captures a lot of what is intuitively plausible about both the negative liberty proposed by the libertarian and the more positive liberty promoted by the classic liberal.

    What do you guys think?

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  15. if you go to a market with enough resources for one person and someone else is able to bid $1 more than you to collectively buy all those resources - are you being dominated?

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  16. David, it seems to me that what really matters is that the unfree person is prevented from achieving their goals. Why should the cause or nature of the constraint have any intrinsic importance? An oppressive law can diminish our freedom every bit as much as an oppressive individual, or so it seems to me.

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  17. I like this conundrum, and I will try to think of something intelligent to say soon. In the meantime, can I plead with Stanley and others to please try to raise the standard of civil debate on blogs? We don't need to resort to insults and name calling.

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  18. Roger--

    My own sense is that it's really only been Stanley who has lowered the tone of debate here. I think that the rest of us have been disputing in a vigorous but friendly manner.

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  19. I agree. I meant that there are "others" at other blogs, not this one. Some people can't help themselves but be rude. It's sad.

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  20. All theory aside, your analogy is absurd. To compare taxes to "dues" for joining the voluntary club of people who work in this country is bizarre and completely unreal. Living and working are necessary for most people. To say that by doing so they have voluntarily decided to pay "dues" by making basic life decisions like working (really a necessity, not a decision) takes all meaning out of the idea of voluntarily.

    Really it is quite presumptuous to establish onself as having the right to tell people that if they work to make money then they are agreeing to pay "dues". There is no choice about working, and so you can't analogize taxes to membership dues.

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  21. Mike, I was lampooning your inconsistent treatment of taxes vs. traffic laws. I quite agree that taxes are forced on us, but so are traffic laws, and that doesn't make them necessarily unjustified. (In particular, I argue that they are justified if they boost our net freedom by providing greater benefits or opportunities in other respects.)

    Incidentally, if you agree with me that we are forced to pay tax, this also commits you to the view that many poor people are forced to work, so that wage labour is not the 'voluntary exchange' capitalists typically assume it to be. (Or, if it is, then tax is "voluntary" in exactly the same way -- see the linked post for my full argument.) Indeed, you seem to recognize this when you note that "There is no choice about working". Anyway, this isn't really relevant to the present topic, I just thought you might find the link to be of interest :)

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  22. Richard: "Imagine you find yourself stuck down a well. Libertarians claim that you are perfectly free so long as everybody else leaves you alone, since that way you suffer no interference. But surely we can see that this is mistaken. If left alone, you would dwindle and die. That's not any sort of freedom worth having."

    As has been pointed out, the idea that libertarians analyze freedom as "non-interference" is a serious mistake; libertarians in fact analyze freedom as "non-aggression". This is important to your intuition-pump, though, because it is quite certain that endangering other people through reckless driving is an act of aggression, and there is also a good case to be made that refusing to rescue someone in an emergency can, in some cases, constitute an act of aggression. This, however, depends on a lot of circumstantial factors -- such as the nature and urgency of the emergency, the role (if any) you played in creating the emergency, the means at your disposal for making some individual contribution to the rescue, the means at others' (including the victim's) disposal for the rescue, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. (This is important, because you'll need some pretty burly argument to generalize, as you want to, from your intuitions about the case of a person in dire emergency from having fallen down a remote well, to circumstances that are quite different along all of these axes, such as systemic poverty or the damage from natural disasters or ....)

    Of course, I note your objection above that the very institution of private property requires "aggressive interference," and so (you claim) contradicts the non-aggression account of freedom. But that is just begging the question, in a particularly crass way, against the libertarian; libertarians hold that the concept of aggression is analytically connected with violations of property rights. Thus enforcement of property titles (up to and including the use of violence) is considered by libertarians to be a defensive, rather than aggressive, use of force. While some libertarians (William Lloyd Garrison, Leo Tolstoy, Robert LeFevre) have been principled pacifists, most are not, and there is nothing in the concept of libertarian freedom that demands complete non-resistance; it demands only the abandonment of aggressive force. Maybe you think that this distinction is unjustified or does not do the work that libertarians want it to do; but if so you ought to mention that, and give some argument for it, not just obliterate the distinction and speak as though libertarians have not addressed it.

    In a similar vein, your attempt to treat taxes and traffic laws as of a piece with one another is no less question-begging. Libertarians have a perfectly good reason, if you accept the distinction between aggressive and defensive uses of force, to sanction the enforcement of traffic laws but not the enforcement of tax laws. To wit: people who defy traffic laws are putting other people in imminent danger, and threatening to destroy their property or their lives; people who refuse to pay tax are doing nothing of the sort, and are threatening only to keep their own stuff. Of course, again, you might find this argument suspect; but if so the burden is on you to acknowledge that it's out there and show what's wrong with it.

    Jason: "As a practicing (but moderate) libertarian, I would suggest that winning the permanent gratitude of one other person is easily worth the effort spent in extricating him from a well."

    This may be true for all I know, but it's certainly not the right reason to rescue people from wells. The right reason is that leaving people to suffer and die is cruel (and perhaps in some cases unjust, i.e. a violation of their rights).

    David: "Forget personal feelings ... could anyone explain the precise point which cause them to treat 'freedom' ( to do anything you like I presume?) as more important than society enforced rules."

    The libertarian conception of freedom is not freedom "to do anything you like"; it is freedom "to do anything you like" without violating other people's rights (the set of rights being derived from the non-aggression principle; i.e. no slavery, assault, extortion, theft, fraud, or vandalism allowed). The reason for treating it as more important than "society enforced rules" is that vices are not crimes, and slavery is wrong.

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  23. Yes, many libertarians take (e.g. property) rights as fundamental, rather than freedom. They're not the kind of libertarian I was discussing in this post. But as I suggest here, your 'moralized' conception of freedom has some absurd consequences. If you hold that a person is "free" so long as their rights are not being violated (or "aggressed" against), then you must hold that a justly imprisoned criminal is not thereby deprived of his liberty. Clearly this is mistaken -- prison is the paradigm case of unfreedom!

    Anyway, it still fails the well example, because the person stuck down the well is not being aggressed against. Rather, he is being ignored. Aggression is a subset of intervention, after all. So a conception of freedom as absense of aggression will have all the same problems as the "absence of intervention" conception which I discuss in the main post.

    The key point is that "Sometimes freedom requires positive action." I don't think any form of libertarianism is consistent with this fact. (Libs tend to recognize only negative rights, not positive responsibilities).

    As an aside, trying to ground morality on inviolable 'rights' is rather silly and fetishistic, as I explain here.

    Finally, the traffic example doesn't depend upon physical risks. Suppose that without traffic laws, people would just drive very very slowly and carefully, and so it would be no more dangerous than our current system. Nevertheless, it is justified to impose traffic laws. Without the laws, we all get stuck in gridlock and cannot get where we want to go in a decent amount of time. We are all made better off -- more free, in the important sense -- by restricting our formal freedom in certain ways.

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  24. Richard: "Yes, many libertarians take (e.g. property) rights as fundamental, rather than freedom. They're not the kind of libertarian I was discussing in this post."

    I think this is a confusion. Libertarians do not, generally, regard liberty (in the sense that is relevant to a theory of political legitimacy) and individual rights as two concepts that you can spell out quite independently of each other and then ask about the boundary conditions or prerequisites that the one imposes on the other. Rather they generally take the two notions to be analytically connected to one another in such a way that you have to understand each in order to understand the other. (How do you know whether you are free? By looking at whether your property rights are being respected. How do you know what property rights you have? By looking at what sorts of actions would infringe on your liberty.) There are exceptions -- the official position of Stinerite egoists, for example, requires a claim that freedom is more fundamental than individual rights, which are merely instrumentally valuable insofar, and only insofar, as the social truce they produce tends to maximize freedom for the agent. But there's good reason to say that these exceptions, where they happen, tend to undermine the libertarianism of the person holding them to the degree that they are treated seriously (e.g. Benjamin Tucker's egoist polemics involved him in assertions that it would be right to do unlibertarian things under certain specifiable conditions), so it's unclear that this constitutes any avenue for attack on libertarianism; at most it just constitutes an avenue for criticising some libertarians as inconsistent.

    Richard: 'But as I suggest here, your 'moralized' conception of freedom has some absurd consequences. If you hold that a person is "free" so long as their rights are not being violated (or "aggressed" against), then you must hold that a justly imprisoned criminal is not thereby deprived of his liberty. Clearly this is mistaken -- prison is the paradigm case of unfreedom!'

    I don't think this actually does the work you think it does. "Liberty" and "freedom" are words with many different senses; I think it is clearly false that there is a univocal notion of "unfreedom" that you can use to determine whether a justly imprisoned criminal is free or unfree. Certainly there is a sense of freedom in which any constraint on action whatsoever constitutes a constraint on freedom; i.e. in which "free" and "unfree" line up roughly with "voluntary" and "involuntary." If that's all you mean then a justly imprisoned criminal is indeed unfree; but then so what? That's not the sense of freedom that libertarians consider relevant to their theory of political legitimacy. There's another sense of the term "freedom" in which you are free if you are being treated according to a full set of human rights and unfree if you are not; here "free" and "unfree" line up only with "voluntary" and "involuntary" only when the actions are non-aggressive, and being prevented from rape, pillage, murder, et cetera is not to be considered a limitation on what you might call "political freedom," since there is no human right to rape, pillage, or murder.

    You might think that this still offends against common sense; that we ought to consider a prisoner, even a justly imprisoned one, a paradigm case of unfreedom in the political sense as well as in the volitional sense. I agree that people often are inclined to say (1) that prisoners aren't free in a political sense, and (2) that this is justifiable if they are justly convicted criminals. But I'd suggest that people tend to believe both (1) and (2) together only because it's very common to mistakenly believe (3) that we're entitled to treat criminals according to less than a full set of human rights in punishment for their crimes. If (3) were true, it would follow that you can justifiably do things to criminals that would limit their freedom, and incarceration under such-and-such conditions might be among those things. But if (3) is false (as I think it is), then either (a) you can justifiably incarcerate someone for such-and-such a crime, as a defensive measure against imminent danger to others -- in which case it is just as false to claim (1) as to claim that a would-be rapist's political freedoms are being infringed when you push him away; or (b) incarcerating someone under such-and-such conditions for such-and-such a crime would be an infringement of political freedom, in which case you shouldn't imprison people like that for such-and-such a crime, and that any justifiable action on the part of the criminal justice system would have to be limited to things like fines or ordering the payment of damages. (I think, incidentally, that (a) is clearly the case for certain crimes, but that (b) is clearly the case for many crimes for which people are typically imprisoned today.)

    In other words, prison is the paradigm case of one kind of unfreedom. But that's not the kind of unfreedom that libertarians primarily care about. (The paradigm case of the kind of unfreedom that they do primarily care about is not prison, but rather slavery.)

    Richard: "Anyway, it still fails the well example, because the person stuck down the well is not being aggressed against. Rather, he is being ignored. Aggression is a subset of intervention, after all."

    Not so. My point above is precisely that one kind of inaction (specifically, negligent inaction) is a form of aggression, in the sense that libertarians use the word. If knowingly leaving someone to suffer and die in a well, or leaving someone to perish in a structure fire, when you could save them without further danger to yourself and when it's likely that nobody else could or would, does not amount to an act of aggression, then what does it amount to? That seems aggressive to me, but if you don't like using the word with that signification then feel free to suggest some different name for it -- coercion? rights-violation? tort? injustice? -- and I'll use that name for the purposes of this discussion. My point will be served so long as there exists any ethical category Epsilon such that (1) Epsilon is plausibly connected with a conception of political freedom; and (2) Epsilon covers (i) all acts of non-defensive violence (including extortion by credible threat), (ii) all acts of fraud, and (iii) all cases of harm from negligence, but does not cover other kinds of wrongs or vices. Whatever it is you call Epsilon, libertarians think that that is the only ethical category such that you can rightly force people not to engage in the acts that come under it; and non-libertarians think that there are some further kinds of actions that people can be rightly forced not to do. The important thing to note is that it's quite possible to be a libertarian, and to admit (iii) to membership in Epsilon (aggression/rights-violation/tort/whatever) without also being compelled to admit the sorts of things that you think your well example ought to force people to admit (e.g. not giving enough money to some specific program designed to alleviate systemic poverty or provide disaster relief, etc.).

    Richard: "As an aside, trying to ground morality on inviolable 'rights' is rather silly and fetishistic"

    Maybe so, but I'm not at all clear on what you mean by the phrase "trying to ground morality". Certainly libertarians do not need to claim (and most do not claim) that all legitimate moral claims are reducible to claims about inviolable rights. (Libertarians may very well think that intemperance, miserliness, cowardice, bigotry, foolishness, et cetera are wrong and should be condemned; to remain libertarians they need only hold that they should not be stopped by violence.) If you mean to suggest that any inclusion of inviolable rights in a moral theory makes it silly (which is what you suggest in the post you link to) then the response is twofold/ First, that libertarians who emphasize rights don't need to hold that it is never justifiable to violate those rights in order to defend a libertarian political programme; they just need to hold that it is not justifiable to violate those rights systematically (if it is justifiable to murder one person in order to save many under extraordinary circumstances, it does not necessarily follow from that that it's justifiable to establish a political order that routinely violates rights in order to achieve this or that putative benefit). Second, that there are just as many and as serious objections against theories that suggest that you can legitimately violate rights in order to maximize some good that does not include considerations of justice in it (e.g., scapegoat cases, Williams' objections against impersonal calculation, etc.), and it seems to me that if you think the choice is obvious or that one of the alternatives is just silly, you probably need to think about the problem harder. (Certainly your post on side-constraints doesn't fully make the case; among other things it requires that we share your intuition that you can give any kind of account of what the good for human beings is that doesn't refer to things like justice and respect as constitutive parts of it. I think that this is a fallacy, exposed and probably decisively refuted by Socrates. In any case, there is quite a bit of debate over it, and it is for precisely this reason that side constraints are supposed to constrain the way that they do, so dismissing the idea as silly seems to me at best overly hasty.)

    Richard: "Finally, the traffic example doesn't depend upon physical risks. Suppose that without traffic laws, people would just drive very very slowly and carefully, and so it would be no more dangerous than our current system."

    Where this is true I don't see what possible justification there is for government-imposed traffic laws. I can see good reasons to legally punish people who endanger others on the road. Whatever laws are adopted to that end could justifiably be enforced on anybody who uses any road.

    I can also see good reasons for the owners of road to establish utilitarian rules of the road, which aim at making the use of the road as smooth and convenient for travellers as possible. But I have no idea why rules adopted under this second justification should have the force of law or why they should have to be the same on all comparable roads. Why not let the owner of each road decide what the rules for their road will be, and letting travelers decide which road they prefer to take? (Of course, someone who refused to obey the rules of the road could be evicted from the road by the owner, and if they refused to go voluntarily they could be arrested for trespassing. But that's different from legally enforcing uniform traffic laws on all roads.)

    At this point you might say, "Ah, but wait. Who owns the roads? The government, of course, so that's why the government should be making and enforcing the rules of the road even when they don't have an immediate safety justification." But why should the government own roads?

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  25. RAD.
    If everyone owned the road infront of their house Can you imagine having a toll on EVERY section of road as well as signs every 10 meters telling you how much you are going to pay and if you dont want to pay that you need to do a handbreak turn. With some sections of road having HUGE tolls designed to discourage all traffic.
    The point is that in reality the process of making a market may cost more than operating without it. this may result from the type of good or the way it is used or the externalities etc.

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  26. geniusNZ: "If everyone owned the road infront of their house Can you imagine having a toll on EVERY section of road as well as signs every 10 meters telling you how much you are going to pay and if you dont want to pay that you need to do a handbreak turn."

    I can imagine any number of things. The question is why in the world you think people would do something that silly. I mean, many people currently own the driveway that leads up to their house, but very few of them place tollbooths on it. Before government got involved in the building of roads, what typically happened was that smaller residential and city roads, and some trails through the wilderness, were built either (1) by cooperative labor or (2) funded by local businesspeople, and then left open for public use; turnpikes were usually limited to large highways. I suspect that much the same thing would happen if roads were privately provided today. Of course, it's possible that people in some neighborhood or another could be so silly, or hate traffic passing through their neighborhood so much, that they'd put up all kinds of onerous blocks to traffic. But then why bother driving through their neighborhood if they are so uptight about you doing so?

    geniusNZ: "The point is that in reality the process of making a market may cost more than operating without it. this may result from the type of good or the way it is used or the externalities etc."

    If your argument is an economic one then I don't think it's a very strong one. Roads are not public goods (they are both rivalrous and excludable); it is easy to seek money from anyone who benefits from positive externalities (e.g. asking businesspeople along the road to help with maintenance costs, with the payoff being a better road in front of their business); owners of roads will typically have strong incentives to avoid congestion, and if a patchwork of ownership ends up somehow causing congestion problems then that will just mean that there is an entrepreneurial opportunity for anyone willing to buy up or build a less congested network of roads in the area. (In fact the problems that you mention above are not even problems with externalities at all; they're alleged problems with transaction costs. But the fact that you transfer control to the government doesn't mean that transaction costs disappear; it just means that they are shifted from up-front costs to costs hidden within the tax bureaucracy. In fact, given that roads are especially notorious as a source of pork-barrel projects for enterprising legislators, and notoriously unresponsive to commuters' needs (as opposed to senior legislators' political priorities), it's quite likely that road-building and road-maintenance are among the worst examples of the inefficiency created by transferring enterprises from the voluntary sector to the government sector.

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  27. > The question is why in the world you think people would do something that silly.

    Why not? What is economically irrational about it?
    How would you ensure that the ownership of roads was invested in the exact group that would result in the optimum outcome? For example let’s say I owned a piece of road in a far away city at the top of a dead end road and I put a toll both on it. What is silly about me charging everyone until I get the money to pay for the road maintenance and a profit too?

    Other people can build a road but they will have to buy land to do that - unlikely.

    > I suspect that much the same thing would happen if roads were privately provided today.

    You seem to be working under an assumption that people will treat it as a public good even if this is against their own interests. If you’re going to do that surely you might as well invest it in some sort of local authority. If you mean a local business district then that seems fairly similar to what we have now. they quite often just block off streets to facilitate foot traffic. Others may try to divert through traffic so it goes through their centre (depending on their strategy).

    > Of course, it's possible that people in some neighborhood or another could be so silly, or hate traffic passing through their neighborhood so much

    That is the case now to an extent. Have you ever noticed the high curbs that will rip your tires open if you drive up on them on a foggy day? Or the roads that narrow to one lane just as you come around a blind corner (I am thinking of a couple of examples on my old street or just off it). Presumably those were created as a result of locals complaining however both have negative effects in total.

    > "it is easy to seek money from anyone who benefits from positive externalities (e.g. asking businesspeople along the road to help with maintenance costs)"

    Easy? Why should they pay? What will you do if they don’t pay? I think your example fails in practice UNLESS you have an organization with compulsory membership. Even them some will benefit at the expense of others. This sort of thing makes you sound like a leftist anarchist.

    > Owners of roads will typically have strong incentives to avoid congestion

    I don’t see your logic here. Why would they want to avoid congestion? If you are going through a mall shops don’t design themselves in such a way as to accelerate your trip through the shop...

    Most road owners would surely want to slow and discourage (or entirely prevent) through traffic (good for pedestrians also). Businesses will want to facilitate traffic that leads directly to their businesses but only at distances at which they probably wouldn't own the road (see my examples earlier).

    100 years ago things were better for the market in regard to
    1) There were not many roads so anything was an improvement
    2) There was no functioning market for most things so it couldn't build up the negative externalities in the way I am suggesting.

    > Just mean that there is an entrepreneurial opportunity for anyone willing to buy up or build a less congested network of roads in the area.

    1) You are building a whole new set of roads (a huge waste)
    2) How are you going to get approval from all the land owners to do that?
    3) If it is like my example of owning a section at the end of a dead end road - I will obviously just change the fees when I see you building a new road - you will never recoup your costs and if you have half a brain you will give up and I can go back to charging full price.

    > They’re alleged problems with transaction costs.

    Yes that is a large part of it - transaction costs. The market could in theory provide as good a service as a government if it copied the government this is a bit of a truism.

    One question we can ask is if the market would provide such a good system why are people not buying huge sections of land and building roads right now?

    > Road-building and road-maintenance are among the worst examples of the inefficiency

    We have tenders for this sort of work. We evaluate them using a set of predetermined criteria (e.g. we might allocate 40% to price and 10% to track record etc). I don’t know many companies that do it in a fairer or more transparent way. I am sure you can say there is inefficiency in other regards but most of it is the transaction costs in getting the government of its bottom and actually building a road and getting the approval of the locals to do so.
    We want to build a road called the "eastern corridor" but the locals keep blocking us using "not in my back yard" logic.
    It may take us a few more years to build up the critical mass to defeat the opposition - a transaction cost of sorts.
    Building these projects requires
    1) considerable economies of scale
    2) the ability to consider all sorts of externalities as "profit"
    3) the ability to force certain people to sell and or to just use public land where required
    4) a very long term view
    cant think of any more just at the moment....

    this doesnt mean that businesses should not have an input into where roads go, I think Business improvement districts are a good idea - I just think that there are flaws in the market system in regard to some things like this that should be managed.

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  28. Rad Geek: "The important thing to note is that it's quite possible to be a libertarian, and to admit (iii) [all cases of harm from negligence] to membership in Epsilon (aggression/rights-violation/tort/whatever) without also being compelled to admit the sorts of things that you think your well example ought to force people to admit (e.g. not giving enough money to some specific program designed to alleviate systemic poverty or provide disaster relief, etc.)." and "[Membership in Epsilon] depends on a lot of circumstantial factors -- such as the nature and urgency of the emergency, the role (if any) you played in creating the emergency, the means at your disposal for making some individual contribution to the rescue, the means at others' (including the victim's) disposal for the rescue, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera."

    This is what I'm not clear on. On what grounds does not rescuing the person from the well count as "negligence" and hence aggression (or Epsilon or ...), and why doesn't the welfare state (universal healthcare, etc.) similarly required to avoid negligence?

    The situational factors that seem most relevant to me are 1) the extent of burden that you face if you must go through the trouble of helping this person and 2) the amount of help that you can provide to this person (i.e. the difference in the situation they will be in if you do help and the situation they will be in if you don't help). These are both matters of degree, and I don't see how you can provide a principled cut-off where failing to help is a violation of the victim's rights in one case but not in another (and coercing someone else into helping is a violation of his rights in one case but not the other).

    Another difference between the well example and the welfare state is that in one case the lives at stake are identifiable (that guy at the bottom of the well) and in the other case they may be statistical (this government program can be expected to save 10 lives) and probabilistic (but it might only save 2, or it might save 20). I don't see why that makes a difference, though.

    Also, But why should the government own roads?.

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  29. Anyway RAD
    you say "they are both rivalrous and excludable"
    I disagree to an extent on both... I think your argument seems to rest on the fact that you propose treating anything that is not a perfect public good as something for the free market.

    I think it is foolish to not realize that there is continuum between these two positions. Every public good aspect to the roads (one of which being to facilitate the free trade that underpins the whole system) is another place where government intervention can ensure optimization.

    If we accept that taking a certain action (e.g. placing a exorbitant fee for using something) is a bad thing or "silly" we can make it legal and expect it to happen every now and then (because people are silly or because of a quirk in the profitability of that scenario) or we can just make it an unenforceable fee.
    In almost every situation there will be a similar marginal benefit that can be provided.
    The only defense against this is that we cannot trust the government to make the correct decisions. BUT that cannot always be true because in some cases it will be obvious and furthermore if the incentives are correct then in most situations it will be rather like the decisions within a business (which a free market supporter implicitly trusts).

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  30. Rad, if you concede that positive action might be required in some cases then you've departed from the standard libertarian position which only admits of "negative rights", etc. As Blar notes, it's no longer clear on what (a priori) basis you can reject broader consequentialist demands for welfare provisions, etc.

    The unfreedom suffered by the man down the well is not due to anyone's "action", but rather, inaction. (Suppose a freak wind or something blew him down the well through no human fault.) So his unfreedom cannot be explained by any particular wrong action anyone has performed. But still, he lacks the sort of freedom that is really important, and it can be restored to him only through the positive actions of others. Their inaction is insufficient. Once you grant this much, the analogy to poverty seems straightforward. The sort of freedom worth having is about opportunities, so if tax-funded welfare programmes will boost people's opportunities in life, then the value of freedom will support such programmes.

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  31. Richard - loking at his website it seems he is a far left anarchist.

    concepts like - the state props up the rich etc

    apparently he likes G. E. Moore although not sure how that leads to anarchy - maybe because I havent read much G. E. Moore

    I have always thought it a bit strange to have far left anarchists it doesnt seem to make much sense to me except purely as a reaction to a currently somewhat conservative establishment.

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  32. Interesting, sorry there are alot of posts so this might not be current witht the theme of the argument..but why do libertarian advocates only single out only government as 'aggressive interferers'
    Why would one think that a large corporation that dominates your choices be any less of an interferer then the government that restricts choices through taxation. Worse the large company has no mandate or responsibility other then to government to stop him from dominating other peoples freedoms on many levels..past consumer choice to liberty and life.
    In answer to the first post..at first i was angry at it ..is socialism stelaing'..then it became apparent that pure socialism is..taking away the 'right of property'..but Jason my friend we are far from socialism if you are applying the 'Greens are stealing' it is as misleading as me saying National's policies are based purely on the 'right to starve'
    I see government as an insurance policy..like Richard says you give rights up to make sure your rights aren't dominated by other concerns, that can't be ameliorated by popular concent

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  33. Let me try something.

    If we're being pure here, let's say we build a society based on the belief that true freedom requires a right to life, and that that justifies interference. Freedom of life trumps all others.

    What would such a society look like?

    Essentially, it would have to act to save a life it it could - regardless of cost.

    1) No capital punishment (fine)
    2) Guaranteed medical care
    3) No waiting lists for medical care

    So far, it fits in fine with many people. Who cares what it costs! I don't care that that guy's been through two livers already, we can't deny him is freedom to live!

    Lets watch what happens when we take it a little further.

    People have the right to life, and therefore we have to protect them from dangerous situations.

    1) Cars that won't start until seatbelts are plugged in and securing the people in the cars.
    2) Implanted chips monitoring people's status, notifying the govt. when the person is in danger.
    3) Personalised diets and exercise regimens.
    4) People with diseases locked up to ensure they take their medications.
    5) Careers like firefighting would be banned because they are too dangerous.
    6) Smoking is made illegal, punishable by incarceration.
    7) No more tramping, sky diving, jet boating, deep sea fishing, or any other dangerous profession (pilots!).
    8) No more hunger strikes!

    Starts to feel about the same as when the robots in I Robot (the movie) take over.

    People need the freedom to make stupid choices - even choices that result in death.

    If the guy at the bottom of the well made a stupid choice and ended up there, he exercised his freedom of choice. Why should I be forced to protect him from himself? Who am I to say that he doesn't want to be down there to make a point? If he was thrown down into the bottom of the well, I would prevent that act, and act to correct the outcome.

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  34. "Anonymous", nothing I've said here supports such paternalistic intervention. Quite the opposite: I'm advocating giving people substantive choices. (We shouldn't force the guy out of the well. But we should enable him to get out if he wishes.)

    "If the guy at the bottom of the well made a stupid choice and ended up there"

    For the sake of my thought experiment, let it be stipulated that he ended up there through no fault of his own. (Maybe he was born there. The details don't matter.) The point is simply that he isn't made "free" just by having everyone else leave him alone. Whether we are obliged to help others become more free is another question. I argue for that too, of course, but it's nothing to do with the 'well' example, as was explained in earlier comments.

    Finally, we shouldn't necessarily help people "no matter the costs". Those costs might remove more important freedoms from everyone else. We should do what will tend to enable people overall.

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  35. Cool, it's not his fault he's in the hole. ;) The person was born there from a long line of well dwellers. :)

    "Anonymous", nothing I've said here supports such paternalistic intervention."

    Perhaps I'm missing what the entire point of the discussion then. Let me paraphrase to see if I understand... You aren't advocating making people more free. The guy at the bottom of the well has less freedom than the guy at the lip, sure. However, you are not advocating that society help that person out of the well by forcing others to provide him with the means to equalise his freedom with the guy on the lip.

    Given that, your next sentence confuses me:

    "I'm advocating giving people substantive choices. (We shouldn't force the guy out of the well. But we should enable him to get out if he wishes.)"

    In order to give him that choice, doesn't that mean the society is forcing others to help him? The government, being unable to do anything by itself (not being an individual), has to coerce others to do it's work for it. So, we are convincing others to help him out of the well. When the government decides that it is important enough, this convincing becomes forcing. Actually, libertarians would say it instantly becomes forcing because individuals are forced to pay taxes to the state in order for the state to convince someone to help using $$.

    "Finally, we shouldn't necessarily help people "no matter the costs". Those costs might remove more important freedoms from everyone else. We should do what will tend to enable people overall."

    I'm a mathematician, not a philosopher or political scientist, so I tend to deal in absolutes. :)

    That would seem to indicate that the freedom we are discussing isn't an absolute. What freedoms of other people's might be compromised by helping our friend out of the well? All they have to do is lower a ladder? Perhaps it's the rental on the ladder which is lost. Is that ownership absolute?

    What then is the absolute? Which freedom of someone else will not be given up in order to pull our friend out of the well?
    What is the core part of the argument that will not be sold out when it is perceived to be too expensive to maintain?

    If it's a matter of degrees, such as "Person A's life is worth 10% of Person B's freedom of speach", what is that equation? Who decides what the equation is? Is it decided by a centrally controlled agency? Voted on? Arrived at by a computer model of general "happiness"?

    It sort of sounds like an argument for utilitarianism ethics, but one built on external control instead of emergent behaviour. I'm all for maximising happiness, I just don't like the idea of someone else maximising it for me.

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  36. "In order to give him that choice, doesn't that mean the society is forcing others to help him?"

    Yes, sure, I think it's sometimes right for the state to "force" others to (pay taxes which will) help enable human freedom generally. But that's entirely different from the paternalistic impositions you described (e.g. don't let people go on hunger strikes), which don't serve to maximize freedom at all.

    As for absolutes, well, they don't work so well outside of maths, I'm afraid. Political extremism tends to be simply awful. Any sensible account will have to strive for more balance than that, i.e. taking everyone's interests into account and weighing them against each other appropriately.

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  37. O.k. personally, I don't see much difference between force other than level of degree. If I refuse to pay my taxes, I will be locked up - denied my freedom of movement. That seems to be a pretty high level of coercion. Personally, I believe that by continuing to live somewhere when you have the opportunity to leave, you have made your choice and you shouldn't complain. :)

    Let's get back to my questions, instead of arguing about whether or not taxation is force, since it really is secondary.

    What would be the foundation on which you would base a society? What is it that you will not compromise in order to increase someone else's freedom?

    Do you have a heirarchy of freedoms? If so, what are they?

    Do you have an equation to help make decisions using that heirarchy? If not, how do you decide if you are truly increasing someone's freedom, or even increasing the "good" in the world? Who makes such a decision? What makes them better at making that decision than anyone else?

    I find that absolutes work very well all through life, they give you a strong foundation from which to make your decisions. Once you have your absolutes, you KNOW when you are deviating from them. That deviation then becomes a conscious decision instead of one of expediency. These would be the founding principles for your society.

    In the USA, it's (in the order presented in the Declaration of Independence)
    1) That all men are created equal
    2) Life
    3) Liberty
    4) Pursuit of happiness

    In Canada, it's (in the order presented in the Canadian Constitution)
    1) Peace
    2) Order
    3) Good government

    Interestingly, New Zealands Constitution and Bill of Rights don't have such statements, although the Bill of Rights does put some freedoms in an order:
    1) Security of the Person
    2) Freedom of thought, expression, religion
    3) Freedom from descrimination

    For example, I believe in honesty. I am not always honest, but there are certain things I will NOT do. Lieing under oath would be one. I have had intense arguments with friends who held a different belief, that family and friends were more important - that if they asked you to lie under oath you should do it. It's always an interesting revelation.

    So, what beliefs will you refuse to compromise? How about our society where the guy in the well is guaranteed help by the government? What will they not compromise?

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  38. Re: your first point, "paternalism" is when the government tries to tell you what's in your own best interests, and so doesn't let you do hunger strikes (or whatever) for your own sake. There's a principled difference between that and cases where you are forced to pay tax for the sake of others. So we needn't worry that my support for the latter will lead to the former.

    Your main questions are a little off-topic from the main point of this thread (which is simply about "the kind of freedom worth having"). But they are interesting questions!

    "What would be the foundation on which you would base a society?"

    My post 'enabling humanity' proposes that our political institutions aim to promote freedom generally, enabling as many people as possible to lead the lives they want to live. That's all a bit vague, admittedly. I don't have a precise algorithm that can tell us exactly what to do in any given situation. (But then, who does? Those examples you give are just the same. Worse, it's questionable whether they're even accurate generalizations. U.S. policy doesn't really privilege "equality" and "life" fundamentally -- witness the absence of adequate public health care!)

    So it's all a bit intuitive. We can all recognize that some freedoms are more centrally important to our lives than others. (Freedom of speech and religion is more important than the "freedom" to be able to drive your car anywhere without traffic laws.)

    "If not, how do you decide if you are truly increasing someone's freedom, or even increasing the "good" in the world?"

    Argue the merits of each particular case, and hopefully reach a consensus. Again, there are various cases which I think are pretty straightforward. And others, of course, which are more difficult. Such is life.

    "So, what beliefs will you refuse to compromise?"

    I don't think there's anything at all that we should dogmatically hold to "no matter what". Surely you would lie under oath if that was the only way to save the world from nuclear war. What matters are the consequences for real people, and we should recognize this. The mere acts themselves are of secondary importance. (Compare my recent post 'fetishizing moral purity'.) Of course, for indirect utilitarian reasons we should come up with general rules ("be honest", "don't steal", etc.) that will tend to promote welfare when generally followed. But exceptional circumstances might call for them to be overriden.

    "How about our society where the guy in the well is guaranteed help by the government?"

    Just to clarify my position: I don't think that government can or should guarantee to always help everyone out whenever they get in a spot of bother. We should recognize that it would be a good thing to help them if we can, and if the costs aren't excessive. But this benefit must be balanced against countervailing considerations.

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  39. O.k. here we go...

    Argue the merits of each particular case, and hopefully reach a consensus. Again, there are various cases which I think are pretty straightforward. And others, of course, which are more difficult. Such is life.

    Reach a consensus how? How many people? So, is consensus required on every decision? Consider gay marriage in New Zealand - was there a consensus on that? The polls that I was able to find seemed to indicate that the NZ public didn't want it. Is that a consensus? Did it increase the net happiness in the society? Net Good? Who measures it?

    I don't think there's anything at all that we should dogmatically hold to "no matter what". Surely you would lie under oath if that was the only way to save the world from nuclear war.

    If the world could only be saved from nuclear war because I lied under oath, it wouldn't deserve to be saved. I can't honestly say if I would lie or not, I would like to think that I would tell the truth all the way to the end. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the ends never justify the means. I have been called too rigid in my beliefs. :)

    So, let's be clear.

    1) You have no firm principles.
    2) Your ethics are situational.
    3) You believe that a select group can make decisions for the whole.



    our main questions are a little off-topic from the main point of this thread (which is simply about "the kind of freedom worth having").

    I disagree, this discussion does get into what freedoms are worth having. :) The freedoms that the society's members decide are worth having and the limits placed on those freedoms define a society. I'm trying to get a definition from you of what you believe those freedoms should be, and what the limits should be.

    I think you will find that you misunderstand what the freedom of "Life" means. Don't worry, most people don't read constitutions or bills of rights, so it's a common misconception. It isn't a "Right to Life" at all. It's the freedom to live without expectation of being killed. Even the New Zealand Bill of Rights (1990) works in this fashion. It guarantees "Life", but it doesn't guarantee health care. It doesn't even guarantee they won't kill you. It just says:

    "No one shall be deprived of life except on such grounds as are established by law and are consistent with the principles of fundamental justice."

    Still, it's in chapter 1 of the bill of rights, so it's considered the most important.

    Oh, and the New Zealand Bill of Rights does have a section on Medical Treatment (Section 11), but it says,

    "Everyone has the right to refuse to undergo any medical treatment."

    ;)

    I would hate to imagine a society that actually had a "Right to Life". That would be pretty scary, from your response, I think you can see that too. :)

    Finally, The mere acts themselves are of secondary importance. the acts themselves are part of the outcomes, so they can never be defined to be secondary, even by utilitarians. If the act is evil, the outcome is tainted with that evil and you can't disregard it because of the resulting good. Consider the research done on Jews in the concentration camps. Large advancements in medical treatments were made because of that research. Does that justify what happened to those individuals? If it saved the lives of more people than were killed, does that justify it?

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  40. I apologise. I just now realise that I just invoked Godwin's Law! :)

    You can avoid that one and insert any other ends/means situation if you would like. :)

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  41. (How about the organ-stealing doctor?) I very much hope you read my earlier linked post on 'fetishizing moral purity'. I find it extremely disturbing that you would sooner let millions of innocent people die than sully your "moral purity" by telling a fib under oath. (Whether or not you "deserve to be saved", the others surely do!)

    Your final point is just run-of-the-mill anti-consequentialist intuition-pumping. I don't think much of it. I very much doubt that imposing great harms on people like that would really yield the best possible consequences. But sure, if we imagine some bizarre scenario where it really did have the all things considered, best possible consequences, then yes, as a consequentialist of course I will think it was right thing to do.

    Obviously, not any old 'ends' can justify atrocious 'means'. But it is just as plainly possible for some ends to justify some means. (It's a stupid saying, really!) Whether any particular ends justify the means taken to achieve it plainly depends upon the particular facts of the situation. That is, it depends on whether those ends really do justify those means or not.

    But this isn't a thread about deontology vs. consequentialism. So enough of that. It can be further discussed in the 'fetishizing moral purity' thread.

    "I'm trying to get a definition from you of what you believe those freedoms should be, and what the limits should be."

    Then read my 'enabling humanity' post, linked above. (In practical terms, I favour a broadly free-market society, complemented by a universal basic income for all citizens.) Further comments related to that topic could go in that thread.

    Finally, I find it disconcerting to have discussions with nameless people. Please choose a name or pseudonym if you wish to continue the discussion. (Especially important if you end up wanting to pursue diverse topics across various threads. It would be helpful for me to be able to recognize which comments have their author in common.) Thanks.

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  42. I love it that you miss the point of the post and go for the emotional stuff. It means you're getting frustrated. Let that go. Look deeper.

    See, here's my problem.

    I've asked over and over again for an ordering of freedoms. You have yet to provide one. Libertarians generally do. The tend to see the freedom of property to be paramount - and you own yourself.

    There's now way to know if you're doing the "right thing". Your definition of which freedoms are more important that others may (and most likely does) differ from mine. You have consistently refused to provide any sort of ordering or explain the methodology used by your society to decide what is good.

    The lack of methodology means that it is the worst form of mob rule. Either that, or it will have a tendency towards being a dictatorship (benign or otherwise). Personally, I wouldn't like to live under either of them.

    Anyways, I'll leave you to have the last word - it is your blog. It has been good to discuss this with you, it's exposed me to another way of looking at the world.

    Regards,
    Anonymous.
    PS: Do you like my new alias? I post under anonymous for a reason, but now it's anonymous the alias instead of blogger's Anonymous. ;)

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  43. "He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither." -- Benjamin Franklin

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