Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Between Rights and Consequences

Arguments about how one ought to act, judged by both introspection and my observations of other people,  seem to fit into two broad categories. One may be loosely described as consequentialist; you should decide how to act according to what consequences your acts can be expected to produce. The other is based on the idea that there are  things one is not entitled to do and so should not do, whatever the consequences. Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, put it in terms of side constraints. You are entitled to pursue your objectives, should pursue your objectives, but only subject to side constraints, absolute limits on what you may do in pursuit of those objectives. Such arguments are sometimes put in terms of other people's rights, which you may not violate.

Looking more carefully at my moral intuitions and other people's behavior, I conclude that the division is not as sharp edged as Nozick's description makes it sound. There are side constraints—one is not free to do anything that achieves good consequences. The ends do not, in that sense, justify the means. But the side constraints are not absolute. You may, even should, do bad things to achieve good ends if the disproportion between rights based cost and consequentialist benefit is sufficiently large. The ends do justify the means, if the ends are sufficiently good and the means insufficiently bad.

I raised the issue in the second edition of my first book, The Machinery of Freedom: 
Suppose you happen to know that everyone in the world is going to die tomorrow (by some natural catastrophe, say the earth colliding with a large asteroid), unless you prevent it. Further suppose that the only way to prevent it involves stealing a piece of equipment worth a hundred dollars from someone who, in your opinion, rightfully owns it. Your choice is simple: violate libertarian principles by stealing something or let everyone die.

What do you do?
I raised it again, implicitly, in my most recent book, Salamander, this one fantasy fiction. Prince Kieron is a major secondary character, brother and heir of the king and the royal official in charge of dealing with magery. One of his subordinates, Fieras, in the process of doing what the Prince wants him to do, uses illegal magery on Ellen, who is both a student and herself a very accomplished mage. She defeats his attempt, in the process providing clear evidence of what he was doing to several of the magisters, professors in the kingdom's only college of magery. She then accuses him to his boss, whose job includes arranging for the punishment of people who break the laws that restrict the use of magic. After agreeing to prosecute Fieras, he says: 
"I apologize. ... and I concede the justice of your point. The King is not above the law. Nonetheless, I will not promise never to violate bounds or law myself, nor will I promise to instruct my servants never to do so. Law-breaking is a bad thing, whether by the King's servants or anyone else, but there are worse things, some of which it is my responsibility to deal with. I will promise not to violate bounds or law save in the most extreme circumstances, and to do my best to see that my servants will not, so that incidents such as the two you have described do not occur again. If my people are charged, as Fieras was, I will do my best to see that they get an honest trial. I am sorry, but that is the most I can offer." 
Later in the book, Prince Kieron tricks Ellen and Coelus, a magister who is in love with her, into his power, and threatens Ellen in order to force Coelus to complete an important piece of magical research—for details you will have to read the book. 

The prince is not a villain. He is, on the whole, an admirable individual, doing his best to serve his brother the king and the kingdom his brother rules. He believes, reasonably although perhaps not correctly, that if he cannot get Coelus to do what he wants the likely consequence is that someone else will complete the research and use the result to kill the king and seize the throne. If his view of the situation is correct, he is in the sort of situation described in my first quote, although the disproportion between cost and benefit is not quite so extreme as in that example. 

As evidence of my view of him, I let him get the girl; at the end of the book he is engaged to Ellen's friend Mari, the intelligent, beautiful, and high status woman he has been courting. In the sequel, I have been doing my best to avoid killing him, despite the suspicion that doing so would strengthen the plot.

I cannot prove that any particular moral beliefs are correct, and doubt that anyone else can. All I can report is the content of my moral intuitions, what seems right to me, and what I can deduce about what seems right to other people from what they say and do. On that basis, I do not think that either the pure consequentialist or the hard-line rights based view can be correct. Consequences are not all that matters, but they are a good deal of what matters. Rights are not absolute constraints, but neither are they mere rules of thumb to be discarded whenever there is good reason to think that doing so will produce somewhat improved results.


Jonathan said...

I suppose what you're saying, in effect, is that moral rules that cover every conceivable situation would be long, complicated, hard to work out, hard to justify in detail, and hard to remember.

Bearing in mind that morality is in any case subjective and varies from person to person, in practice it's easier to have simple rules and ignore them occasionally when (after due consideration) it seems intuitively right to do so.

Gordon said...

Nozick presented an interesting model in his *Philosophical Explanations* (based on an earlier paper) that rejects the maximization of utilitarianism, but allows for permissible actions that have some number of "wrong-making" features, among which could, I think, include rights violations. After analyzing two weaker principles, he arrives at "It is impermissible to do act A if another action is available with less weighty [wrong-making] features such that the extra wrongness of A over that alternative overrides A's extra rightness over the alternative". (Here Nozick assumes that we can make some sense of the difference in the wrongness of two actions being greater than the difference in the rightness of two actions.)

Stealing the equipment (A), has a wrong-making feature of violating the owner's property right, but also has a right-making feature of saving the world. Presumably, the right-making features of A outweigh the wrong-making features. But this is not enough to permissibly violate the owner's rights. For that, it would have to be the case that there was no action B available such that the wrongness of B was less than the wrongness of A *and* the difference in wrongness between A and B was greater than the difference in rightness between A and B.

Anonymous said...

I'm happy to hear that you're writing a sequel to Salamander. I've been a fan of the book since you posted it on your website years ago, prior to its publication as a Kindle file.

RKN said...

The ends do justify the means, if the ends are sufficiently good and the means insufficiently bad.

Fair enuf, but doesn't this merely kick the can down the moral road -- sufficient/insufficient for who, and whose evaluation of good/bad do we use?

Anonymous said...

I'm fond of the "categorical imperative" approach myself. Do things in accordance with a general rule which, if most people followed it most of the time, would lead to results I like.

This gives you, at one stroke,

* the undesirability of stealing somebody's property (since I don't want to live in a world with a lot of theft),

* the desirability of saving the world (since I don't want to live in a world in which everybody including me has died), and

* the weighting of the latter over the former (since, no matter who faces this decision, I would prefer the world in which the decision-maker chooses to save the world by stealing)

David Friedman said...

"sufficient/insufficient for who, and whose evaluation of good/bad do we use?"

Each person is using his evaluation, of course. That's equally true whatever the moral rules are.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous says nice things about Salamander, which I always enjoy hearing. I believe the version currently up as a Kindle may be mildly improved from the version he read--whether or not it is, I have a version which is slightly improved, although the changes are not large, and could send it to him.

I also have about seventy thousand words of the sequel written. I've been making some progress lately, but am not sure how soon I will be able to weave all of the plot threads together for a satisfactory ending. I would be happy to send out what I have for comments to people who liked the first book--just email me. Or to wait until I have a complete draft, and send it out then to beta readers.

And just to stir the interest of those who read Salamander, the sequel centers at the beginning on Lord Iolen's son, stranded in Forstmark by his father's death and viewed by the Einvald, the ruler of Forstmark, as a convenient pawn, since he inherits his father's claim to the throne of Esland. Eirick is, as Mari puts it at one point, a considerable improvement on his father.

And about the same age as Prince Kieron's son Kir, with rather similar tastes.

We also get to see something of the King and Queen of Esland, more of Melia and Alys, who turns out to be not such a dumb blond type as she appeared to be in the first book, and learn more about the Dorayan League, the empire that Esland split off from a few hundred years earlier.

Thrinais said...

Assuming the the problem with violating someone's rights is the costs that you thereby impose on him, I would suggest that if you believe that the consequential benefits exceed those costs, you are morally justified in imposing those costs on him if you then reimburse him for the imposed costs. This would be reflected in the law if the consequential benefits did not reduce your tort liability for your action.

martin said...

One may be loosely described as consequentialist; you should decide how to act according to what consequences your acts can be expected to produce. The other is based on the idea that there are things one is not entitled to do and so should not do, whatever the consequences.

That's the way the difference is often presented, but I don't think it's accurate. The acts deontological libertarianism prohibits have bad consequences, and are prohibited *because* they have bad consequences. E.g. murder has the bad consequence of someone being murdered.

In a way this applies to all laws. Like libertarian laws, non-libertarian laws prohibit acts that are considered - *by the people who are in favor of those laws* - to have bad consequences also. To the mullahs in Iran a woman stepping outside without wearing a hijab has the bad consequence of there being an (as they see it) indecently exposed woman on the streets.

So it's not about wether or not consequences are important, it's about what counts as bad consequences.

Another point I want to make is that one way of looking at natural rights libertarianism is seeing it as letting people decide for themselves what consequences they accept, with each's "jurisdiction" being his own body and (justly aquired) property.

Julien Couvreur said...

The two views don't have to be incompatible. You choose to steal, and will accept the consequences. You still recognize the owner.
If instead, you refused consequences (you defend yourself against the owner coming after you), then you'd be failing to recognize his ownership.

Presumably, the people you saved would be willing to help you compensate the victim. Because of that the scenario is really stretched as it would be more likely and expedient for the victim to accept a thousand dollars for the gizmo.
If the scenario involves killing the victim, then are you right to shoot the victim, or is the victim right to defend himself?