Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Left-libertarianism again.

[Guest post by David Killoren]

Richard's posted recently about left-libertarianism. Here I'll just say a few things, in no particular order, about that view. There will not be much in the way of argument here; this will be mostly a series of pronouncements.

First of all, as Richard notes, various libertarians who advocate property rights typically start out with the claim that agents "fully own themselves," and move from there to the claim that agents have property rights which extend over other things, e.g. the products of their own labor. This, however, is not the direction of inference I prefer; I don't think it is obvious that agents own themselves, so I don't think it is legitimate to begin by making that claim. In my own view, the beginning should be with the claim that legitimate property rights derive from the creative activity of an agent, and extend over whatever is the product of the agent's creative acts. And I think that agents fully own themselves only insofar as they are the products of their own creative acts.

So, I think that while it is neither obvious nor self-evident that agents own themselves, it is self-evident that a creator has some sort of right to freely use and dispose of her creation. Let me put that latter point in a slightly different, perhaps more correct, way. Suppose you and I disagree about what ought to be done with some object; you want to dispose of it one way, and I want to dispose of it another way. I think it is self-evidently true that, if I am the object's creator, then that is a reason why our dispute should be resolved in my favor. Perhaps this reason can be overridden by other reasons, but, according to me, there is automatically some weight thrown behind the wishes of a creator for her creation. The claim that such weight gets thrown is a claim which I will call "the creator principle," and my assertion is that the creator principle is self-evidently true.

"If it weren't for me --": sentences that begin that way usually end up asserting some right to something or other. Suppose I spend the day making a quilt. You want the quilt. "But it's my quilt," I say, "because if it weren't for me, there wouldn't be any quilt." I think that when we say things like this, we aren't simply basing our claims of ownership on the above counterfactual conditional. I think what we mean is to say that since I am somehow the cause of the quilt, you can't have the quilt unless I'm willing to give it to you. Why is this line of reasoning so routinely held to be valid? I don't have any good explanation. I can only report that it does seem, to me and to many other people, to be valid.

Another example: Many (most? all?) of the people who believe that God created the world, also believe that having created the world entitles God to do pretty much whatever he wants with, or to, the world. God, they will say, may destroy the world, or abandon it, or turn it into a paradise, or do whatever he wants. If you want to argue with such people, you are better off trying to show that God did not create the world; it will be difficult to convince them that even if God did create the world, he still isn't entitled to dispose of it however he pleases. They are likely to think that the latter assertion is self-evidently false, and that its negation is self-evidently true.

I think this example does show that people do, in a kind of automatic way, ascribe special rights to a creator, deriving from his or her creative activity. Of course, since people do all sorts of stupid and groundless things automatically, I don't expect the above example to be particularly convincing to anyone. But perhaps by considering this or similar cases in more depth, something convincing might emerge.

By the way: Human creative activity is, of course, not at all like divine creative activity, and this makes application of the "creator principle" to human situations a bit more complicated. Whereas if God wanted a chair, he would simply will it into being, a human being who wants a chair must begin with some raw material -- a piece of wood, say -- and chop away at it until it takes the shape of a chair. Since human beings do not create the raw material of the world, they cannot, by means of the creator principle, lay claim to that raw material. This, I think, is the basis of a rationale for the left-libertarian view that natural resources should belong to everyone in common, and to nobody in particular. One can argue that, in the case of chair-making, for instance, the chair-maker does not own the wood out of which his chair is made, but does own the change made to the wood, since the change is what the chair-maker has created. This change is the difference between the chair and the wood. So, what the chair-maker owns is not a chair; it is rather a chair "minus" the wood out of which it is made. Metaphysically, this is weird, but I think it can be worked out, although I won't attempt to work it out here.

I'll finish by saying this: Besides the creator principle, I think there are other, conflicting principles, which are also self-evidently true. For instance, I think that some principle, asserting that there is some presupposition in favor of those policies or political institutions which maximize aggregate human well-being, is self-evidently true. Perhaps there are other self-evidently true principles (e.g. egalitarian ones); however, I can report that, when I consider questions about public policy or political institutions, these are the two principles which seem to be most pressing. Anyway my view is that, in the sorts of issues with which libertarians concern themselves, weight gets thrown behind more than one sort of claim, and that the correct decisions, policies and political institutions can be identified by watching the resultant interplay and conflict among those claims.


  1. I do think individuals own themselves. At least I think they own *most* of themselves. I think this is so because I think individuals (adult ones) are largely the products of their own creative acts.

  2. I don't think I'm committed to say here that God has a right to torture us; only to say that the fact that God created us is a *reason that favors* his having the right to torture us. I can appeal to something else to override that reason. Since many people do in fact believe that God has a right to torture us, I don't think it's all that crazy to say that there are reasons that favor his having that right.

    Some similar reply will be available to your baby-making example. However, I don't think I even need to make that sort of reply. In the case of baby-making, there is the same complexity which is present in all human creative acts: You and your hypothetical wife didn't create the whole baby; you instead made the baby out of something else -- your genetic material, for instance -- and I'm not convinced that you have any rightful claim to your genetic material. So at least part of the baby -- its genetic material -- doesn't belong to you.

    Baby-making is weird. I'm not sure how to deal with it, and I'm not sure *any* extant moral theory has the resources to deal with it fully adequately. At any rate, I'm guessing you're not going to get a good idea of how to treat babies from a theory about property rights.

  3. Maybe one could say each thing is created by a number of things coming together - for example you make hte quilt but you could not do so without someone supplying the material or showing you the plan etc.
    thus even the baby has a sort of communal ownership.
    such logic cant apply to the the creator however because what does "a right" or "a reason" mean at that level? there is no basic logic for him to base that on nor is there any higher standard for him to be measured against because if he is as one can imagine a god (omnicience ompnipresence omnipotent) then these things dont exist outside his "actions". So the analysis quickly decends into nonsense rather like trying to see if the earth falls downwards. (ok maybe not the greatest example but hey)

  4. I agree that human beings' ability to create is dependent on their social circumstances, etc. This is another way in which human creative activity is weird, and it is another reason I think it is worthwhile to consider the case of God. The case of God leaves all that complexity behind, and allows you to see more clearly what a genuine creative act *would* entitle you to do, without requiring you to think about whether human beings ever actually engage in creative acts.

    With regard to human beings, I don't think it's right to say (as I think you at least suggested) that since one's ability to create is dependent on social circumstances, etc., one never engages in any genuine act of creation. Creative acts, in my view, don't need to be "spontaneous" or "out of nothing" in order to be creative acts.

    I think it's clear that human beings are creators of something or other. To avoid my conclusions, I think you're better off arguing that human creative activity does not entitle anyone to anything, than you would be arguing that human beings aren't creative, since (I think) that latter assertion is clearly false.

    I agree that the "natural resources problem" infects every instance in which property rights are ascribed. Everything man-made has a natural resource component.

    As an aside, I'd like to admit that I clearly need to think about all this a lot more before I will have a set of adequately defensible views. But I think/hope that I am going down something like the right track. Clearly, at any rate, I think there is something morally significant and entitling about creative activity. The tasks are (1) to really explain how and to what your creative activity entitles you; (2) to really explain how human creative activity works.

  5. Well, the idea is that you have the right to "use and dispose of" whatever you create. This includes the right to give it away. And when I help you move, normally the understanding is that I am giving you something (i.e. giving you help), not trading something for something else. So it makes sense that my creative act in that case doesn't bring about any particular obligations on your part.

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  7. Hmm, I really don't find the Creator principle even remotely plausible. (This ties in with my thoughts on objective purpose, and how it cannot possibly be externally imposed, even by God.) Even if I could create a child ex nihilo by the sheer force of my will, that would not give me any right whatsoever to "use and dispose of" the child as I please. Quite the opposite: if anything, I would have a moral duty to care for this newly created agent, who has an intrinsic moral worth. I don't think persons are the sorts of things that can be "owned" at all. But insofar as they can be owned at all, surely they can only be self-owned. You note that it can be difficult to convince religious people otherwise. But just because (some) religious people are stubborn and irrational, doesn't mean they're right! ;)

    But I'll grant that the principle is more plausible when relating to inanimate creations. Nevertheless, I think it's possible to have a positive duty to provide help to others in need, and this is something that libertarianism alone cannot account for. (Well, unless you accept this argument, I suppose.) But you seem to recognize that when you concede the attraction of weak utilitarian principles (etc.) in addition.

    One final point: I'm not sure what work the denial of full self-ownership is doing for you. As I understand left-libertarianism, it standardly accepts self-ownership, but denies world-ownership. That is, it takes natural resources to be the common property of all, which must be distributed fairly before laissez faire interactions may justly proceed. I'm wondering which part of this picture leads you reject it?

  8. "...if anything, I would have a moral duty to care for this newly created agent, who has an intrinsic moral worth."

    Special "creator duties" might exist as well as the "creator rights" I've tried to describe. Creator duties might explain why we have duties to our offspring which we don't have to other people's offspring. What really interests me, in the end, is the idea that creative activity is morally significant, one way or another.

    "I think it's possible to have a positive duty to provide help to others in need, and this is something that libertarianism alone cannot account for."

    That's something I do want to acknowledge. I don't think any kind of libertarianism (not even the left-kind) can account for all the duties which we as moral agents have. Equally, I think, utilitarianism cannot account for the kinds of moral reasons with which libertarians concern themselves. I suppose my claim would be (1) that libertarians and utilitarians have noticed two different kinds of moral reasons, and (2) that these two kinds of moral reasons are both pressing -- they both "throw weight."

    "I'm wondering which part of this picture [i.e. the standard left-libertarian picture] leads you reject it?"

    I'd want to replace self-ownership with the "creator principle" described above. So in my preferred picture, natural resources are the "common property of all," just as left-libertarians say; but it is *individuals' creative output*, rather than the individuals themselves, which is the basis of private property.

    I don't take this modified picture to be substantially different, in the end, from ordinary left-libertarianism. I don't exactly *reject* self-ownership; I think it is entirely possible for persons to own themselves, and I think it is likely that most persons (or anyway most mentally competent adults) do own themselves. What I reject is the idea that self-ownership is a legitimate place to begin. For one thing, not all persons, in my view, even *do* own themselves. I think children might not own themselves, for instance. (Maybe this is why you can force a child to go to piano practice without violating any of her rights.) If children don't own themselves, but adults do, then something more fundamental than a principle of self-ownership must explain why. I think the "creator principle" can do this.

  9. For someone own him/herself he/she must own a space of land at the birth.Only in this way he/she can chose own destiny. Libertarians like Buffet already were born with lands that should belong to others. Then, they can own themselves since that others don't. That's the problem.The system is like a competition, a marathon. Who runs more fast should earn. But, in the Buffet world, some competitors begins ahead.The right division of land is the key.


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