Sunday, December 02, 2012

Thoughts on the Trolley Problem

A familiar philosophical conundrum goes roughly as follows:

You are standing by a trolley track which goes down a hill, next to a fork in the track controlled by a switch. You observe, uphill from you, a trolley that has come loose and is rolling down the track. Currently the switch will send the trolley down the right branch of the fork. Four people are sitting on the right branch, unaware of the approaching trolley, too far for you to get a warning to them. 

One person is sitting on the left branch. Should you pull the switch to divert the trolley to the left branch?

The obvious consequentialist answer is that, assuming you know nothing about the people and value human life, you should, since it means one random person killed instead of four. Yet to many people that seems the wrong answer, possibly because they feel responsible for the result of changing things but not for the result of failing to do so.

In another version of the problem, you are standing on a balcony overlooking the trolley track, which this time has no fork but has four people whom the trolley, if not stopped, will kill. Standing next to you is a very overweight stranger. A quick mental calculation leads you to the conclusion that if you push him off the balcony onto the track below, his mass will be sufficient to stop the trolley. Again you can save four lives at the cost of one. I suspect fewer people would approve of doing so than in the previous case.

One possible explanation of the refusal to take the action that minimizes the number killed starts with the problem of decentralized coordination in a complicated world. No individual can hope to know all of the consequences of every choice he makes. So a reasonable strategy is to separate out some subset of consequences that you do understand and can choose among and base decisions on that. A possible subset is "consequences of my actions." You adopt a policy of rejecting actions that cause bad consequences. You have pushed out of your calculation what will happen if you do not act, since in most cases you don't, perhaps cannot, know it—the trolley problem is in that respect artificial, atypical, and so (arguably) leads your decision mechanism to reach the wrong answer. A different way of putting it is that your decision mechanism, like conventional legal rules, has a drastically simplified concept of causation in which action is responsible as a cause, inaction is not.

I do not know if this answer is in the philosophical literature, but it seems like one natural response from the standpoint of an economist.

Let me now add a third version. This is just like the second, except that you do not think you can stop the trolley by throwing the stranger onto the track—he does not have enough mass. Your calculation implies, however, that the two of you together would be sufficient. You grab him and jump.

The question is now not whether you should do it—most of us are reluctant to claim that we are obliged to sacrifice our lives for strangers. The question is, if you do do it, how will third parties regard your action. I suspect that many more people will approve of it this time than in the previous case, even though you are now sacrificing more, including someone else's life, for the same benefit. If so, why?

I think the answer may be that, when judging other people's actions, we do not entirely trust them. We suspect that, in the previous case, the overweight person next to you may  be someone you dislike or whose existence is inconvenient to you. When you take an act that injures someone for purportedly benevolent motives, we suspect the motives may be self-interested and the claim dishonest. By being willing to sacrifice your own life as well as his, you provide a convincing rebuttal to such suspicions.

All of which in part comes from thinking about my response to the novel, Red Alert, on which the movie Doctor Strangelove was based. In both versions, a high ranking air force officer sets off a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.  In the movie, he is crazy. In the book, he is a sympathetic character. He has good reason to regard the idea of Soviet conquest with horror, having observed atrocities committed by Soviet troops in Germany at the end of WWII. He has concluded, for all we know correctly, that a unilateral nuclear attack by the U.S. will succeed—will destroy enough of the Soviet military so that the counterattack will not do an enormous amount of damage to the U.S. He has also concluded that the balance of power is changing, that in the near future the U.S. will not be able to succeed in such an attack and that in the further future the USSR will triumph.

Under those circumstances, his choice is not obviously wrong. It can, indeed, be seen as the consequentialist choice in the trolley problem—with the number of lives at stake considerably expanded.

But what makes it sufficiently believable to make him a sympathetic character is that part of his plot requires him to commit suicide in order to make sure he cannot be forced to give up the information that will let his superiors recall the bombers he has sent off. The fact that he is willing to pay with his own life to do something he considers of enough importance to justify killing a large number of people makes his reaching that judgement much more believable than it would otherwise be, and makes us feel as though his act is in consequence more excusable, perhaps even right.

As in my final trolley example.

One further point occurs to me. My guess is that, on average, people who think of themselves as politically left are more likely than others to accept the consequentialist conclusion to the trolley problem—and less likely than others to approve of the decision made by the air force officer in Red Alert. Readers' comments confirming or rejecting that guess are invited.

60 Comments:

At 10:49 AM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Vijay said...

This is a bit of a tangent, but the Economist has an article on this topic last year:
http://www.economist.com/node/21530078

 
At 11:21 AM, December 02, 2012, Anonymous Miko said...

I consider myself to be on the anti-political left (Political compass score: -7.88 economic left, -10.00 social libertarian, although that's a very flawed metric) and would easily reject both of those consequentialist arguments.

I would, however, agree with the economist's answer that it's useful to base calculations on "the consequences of my actions" and I'd even go a step further and say that the reluctance people have in the fat man version of the trolley problem is an example of this principle working correctly. The idiots who are sitting on the tracks had an obligation to consider the consequences of their actions as well. The fact that they clearly failed to do so doesn't make it appropriate to impose serious costs on an innocent third party.

 
At 12:44 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger randian said...

I think the legal consequences are much more important here than the moral issues.

Pushing somebody off the railing to save four others is likely to get you a murder charge, regardless of the benevolence of your motive.

Depending on whether you admit seeing the lone passenger, diverting the railcar will either get you a manslaughter (or perhaps negigent homicide) charge if you didn't see them (you caused a death but didn't intend to) or murder if you did (you intentionally caused a death - you knew they were there but diverted the car anyway).

 
At 1:13 PM, December 02, 2012, Anonymous Patrick said...

While the judgment of third parties is important, we can see reasons to support our intuitive feelings about the trolly problem even just considering our own judgment. It has been pointed out elsewhere (I first saw this argument at lesswrong.org) that human beings are analogous to programs running on a machine with buggy hardware. We make errors in our judgment, and we know we make these errors, so we must formulate a set of rules for action that accounts for the harm these errors cause and minimizes it where possible. Even when I believe something with absolute certainty, there may be a substantial chance that I am wrong.

My ability to estimate my own utility is very good (though not perfect), and my ability to estimate the utilities of people I know and care about is mediocre. But my ability to estimate the utility is poor for random strangers, and is abysmal for large groups of strangers. Similarly, my ability to predict the physical outcomes of my actions becomes more suspect the more complicated the problem.

Treating the three problems with this in mind, we might say the following: In the first version, the choices are as symmetrical as possible. There's no reason to think that people on the left track value their life any more than people on the right track. No reason to think that I might know and despise one of these people far off down the track and so choose to kill him. If perhaps the four might be able to dodge the train, so equally might the one. In this version, my errors in judgment are at a minimum, so I am most justified in throwing the switch and sending the trolly towards the one man.

In the second version, there is no such symmetry. There is now a reason to think that the man on the bridge's life is more valuable than the lives of the men on the track: he as avoided putting himself in danger. The difference probably doesn't account for a factor of four, but there is reason for doubt. People who will save or benefit many lives, doctors for example, are more likely to be on bridges than on rail tracks. It is common enough to dislike fat people, so I may be experience cognitive bias as a result of my distaste for the fat man. And the odds of errors in my physical calculations also don't cancel: no matter how certain I feel that the fat man will stop the train, the conclusion is dubious, and the errors in that calculation do not balance with the errors involved in estimating the odds of the four people being able to escape from the train's path on their own. For these reasons, and doubtless many others, it is likely that my conclusions in the second version are the result of cognitive errors, so I probably should not push the man in this case.

In the third version, there are fewer sources of bias, and thus action is more reasonable. Given my tendency to overestimate my utility relative to others, I have very likely made the correct utility calculation. And the high cost I will bear implies that I have every reason to make sure that I make the correct physical prediction as well. That prediction is still suspect--we are naturally incredulous that a fat man could stop a train like that--but at least less so given the stakes. In this version, I would probably be foolish to sacrifice our lives, but my actions would not be in great danger of being wrong, as in case 2.

In all three cases, we may say than an omniscient god should always sacrifice the one to save the four. But we are not omniscient, and thus must sometimes sacrifice the four in order to avoid systematic errors in our reasoning that would cause us to sacrifice five.

 
At 1:36 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

I like Miko's answer to the fat man problem.

My own philosophy is that, even without considering the law, I feel at fault if I do harm to someone; I don't feel at fault if I omit to do good to someone, unless perhaps I could have done so easily and without problems.

So, if in serious doubt, I'd do nothing, and let things happen as they would have done in my absence.

I point out that it's unlikely but quite possible that the four people on one side will spontaneously get up and walk away, while the one person on the other side goes on sitting there. You can never be sure of the consequences of your actions.

 
At 2:02 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

If I could see people sitting on the right and I couldn't see anyone on the left, I'd feel justified in pulling the switch, even though there might be people sitting there that I couldn't see.

 
At 2:36 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Chris Bogart said...

I agree with your guess that right-leaners would be more approving of the Red Alert scenario. I think right-leaning people are generally more prone to ideological certainty and team loyalty than left-leaners (with lots of exceptions on both sides, of course). So they'd be more likely to accept the Red Alert sacrifice because they'd have more certainty of the their appraisal of the global situation and the danger to their side, and the rightness of their side.

As for the train conundrum, though, I think the thought experiment assumes too much about the actor's certainty to correlate with political leaning. Quite a lot of the things we argue about politically are our differing predictions of what the effects of laws will be, not a weighing between alternative futures everyone agrees on.

 
At 3:12 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Chase said...

I'm always amused by the lengths to which people will go in order to avoid answering the underlying moral question presented by the trolley problem.

For those of you casting aspersions on the four people you'd condemn to death, claiming their negligence or recklessness has placed them in harm's way: Modify the original hypothetical to suppose that the four people in question were kidnapped and tied up on the railroad tracks for the express purpose of putting you, the decision-maker, in this position. Their selection was entirely random - names picked from a phone book beforehand.

Assume a similar modification if you're supposing that the four people might get up and walk away.

Assume the laws are such that your decision in this situation will leave you free of legal liability no matter what.

Assume the person you're considering pushing is not fat, so no anti-fat bias is possible.

What result?

 
At 3:13 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Chase said...

On a related note, everyone should read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

 
At 3:38 PM, December 02, 2012, Anonymous Patrick said...

Chase,

Your modifications do not address the underlying problem I was talking about. I cannot make rules about what to do based on the states of the world, only based on my beliefs. When I expect my beliefs to correlate poorly to reality, it does not help to say that I'm really confident, or that I happen to be right. I may believe everything you said, and feel confident in my beliefs, but given the objective unlikelihood of such a scenario, those beliefs are strong evidence (to my imperfect mind) that I have made an error in reasoning.

When I believe I am in such a scenario, most of the time (say 90%) I will be wrong--pushing the person will not stop the train. So the correct rule for my to implement is to not push, and I will accept that this will give the wrong outcome in that small fraction of circumstances (10%) where I am correct in my reasoning. Unfortunately, my mind is not sufficiently reliable to distinguish these contingencies, and tends to give the wrong answer more often than not (since not pushing is much more likely to be the right answer begin with). If I were an omniscient god, I would implement a different decision algorithm, but I am not, so I make do with an inferior one.

You could further modify the scenario to minimize all possible sources of bias--doing so would end up making it indistinguishable from David's first scenario, where I agree that you should steer to avoid the majority.

 
At 7:06 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

As usual, David shows that he is a moral relativist who does not seem to be willing to stand on principle. Yes David, it is possible to state clearly that it is wrong to initiate violence against others, which would prevent you from killing someone else to save the life of some other someone else. You have some excellent ideas and are a very intelligent person. But your lack of moral principles presents a serious problem to some of your positions. The initiation of violence is bad. Why is that so hard for you to understand?

 
At 7:42 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Chase said...

Patrick,

"The underlying problem" to which you refer is that you (and most people) cannot/do not accept the scenario as posed. Instead, additional facts are assumed in order to justify giving the answer you want to give. This is an interesting phenomenon demonstrating the fact that moral judgments are almost universally intuitive, with ex post reasoning employed to justify a previously-reached conclusion rather than to find the "correct" answer. The contortions people will go through to find the former rather than the latter is entertaining. Here for example, you literally say "I expect my beliefs to correlate poorly to reality" in certain situations in order to justify reaching the opposite conclusion of that which reason would otherwise suggest you should. Easy game, when you put it like that! You can conclude anything you like. =P

"Normally, when you add two and two, you get four, but when I expect my beliefs to correlate poorly to reality . . ."

 
At 7:43 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Chase said...

The initiation of violence is bad.

Prove it.

 
At 7:54 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Chase said...

Better, yet: Have you read The Machinery of Freedom? If so, you should recognize the following passage:

"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 [initiating violence]. Your choice is simple: [initiate violence] or let everyone die.

What do you do?"

 
At 7:58 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Joseph Miller said...

Vangel,

There's a difference between "stating" and proving. I find utilitarianism much more compelling than rights.

"Initiation of violence is bad"

Literally everything you do initiates some degree of violence on somebody. An extreme example: a train is approaching a car that is stuck on the tracks and there's no time to tell the conductor. Two choices: trespass and pull the e-brake, or do nothing and allow the person in the car to die. Assume (the obvious) that one of those outcomes is better. They both involve violations of someone's rights.

Utilitarianism, in theory, gives you an answer.

I think some libertarians think utilitarianism conflicts with ancap. I disagree; utilitarianism gets you to ancap, or at least minarchism.

In practice, the concept of property rights, relative to the alternatives, is a utility maximizing one. Maybe not a global maximum, but it's clearly the best option available.

 
At 9:58 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger jimbino said...

I think it would be interesting to develop a test consisting of a series of questions that would determine a person's religious beliefs, which mostly don't correspond to his stated beliefs.

For example, most all American Roman Catholics profess faith in an authoritarian church that recommends sending you straight to hell for using birth control, especially the abortifacient type, yet their actions belie their "faith." American Roman Catholics appear to believe in birth control.

Then there are "humanitarian" folks who treat their dogs better than people, etc.

 
At 10:25 PM, December 02, 2012, Anonymous James A. Donald said...

Anyone who takes action on the trolly problem, is signalling a willingness to kill people, hence reason to believe him a bad person.

Further, observed behavior of utilitarians is that they are bad people. As I have often said, whosoever says he will hold a child in the fire to find a cure for malaria, will hold a child in the fire and forget he was trying to cure malaria.

 
At 10:46 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

Some replies to Chase:

1. I don't think that responding to the problem as posed constitutes evasion.

2. In order to amuse you further, I point out that, if the people are tied to the tracks, it's quite likely that the trolley would be derailed by the first person and veer off to the side, leaving the rest unharmed.

3. The request for proof of a moral principle is silly. I don't believe anyone can provide proof of his moral principles, whatever they are.

4. The quote from TMoF is worthwhile. It illustrates that one simple moral principle can't be expected to cover all possible situations: in exceptional circumstances you may wish to break the rule that you've imposed on yourself.

5. In any of these situations, I don't condemn anyone to death unless I take some positive action resulting in death. If I do nothing and people die, they were condemned to death by their own actions, or by someone else's actions.

 
At 11:10 PM, December 02, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

A moral principle is a rule of thumb: it's made by intuition and can be broken by intuition.

In general, I don't think I'd kill one innocent person to save four others. I might well kill one to save hundreds of millions. In between, my judgment is uncertain and not to be relied on.

 
At 11:39 PM, December 02, 2012, Anonymous Patrick said...

Chase,

You mischaracterize me. I did not say that my beliefs fail to correlate to reality in general, only that they sometimes do. I.e., I can make mistakes, I know I make mistakes, and I know I don't know for certain when I've made a mistake, but I can identify what sort of circumstances entail a high likelihood of mistakes. One such circumstance is when I believe something that is ordinarily wildly unlikely, such as that pushing a person in front of a train will stop it.

In the real world, what do you think the likelihood of this is? One in a million? One in a billion? I don't know, but if I end up believing (even with really high confidence) in something with one-in-a-million odds, I'm very likely wrong.

It does not help to say that it happens to be true, either. Say my high level of belief results in shifting my subjective probability of it working from one in a million to one in a hundred. (Meaning that in real-world circumstances where I feel this way, 99% of the time I will be wrong due to some cognitive bias.) I cannot differentiate between the 99 cases where I'm wrong and the 1 case--this case--where I am right. So whatever my decision is, I am not merely deciding for this case, but for the other cases where I am wrong. Thus, a decision to push will save 3 net lives with 1% probability, but cost 1 net life with 99% probability. Overall, that's an expected cost of .96 lives, so I shouldn't push.

I am not avoiding the problem, just pointing out that I cannot solve it as well as someone more perfect could. If an omniscient god, or an ultrareliable prediction machine, foresees an increase in utility by pushing, then they should probably push. But I am an imperfect human, I acknowledge my constrained ability to reason, and I hedge my bets. I thus maximize utility subject to the constraint that the utility maximizing algorithm must run on my buggy hardware.

 
At 5:37 AM, December 03, 2012, Anonymous A. Schwarz said...

If you're willing to push the fat man, you're acting on the principle that it's not immoral to murder someone if it prevents even more death. Killing someone is not immoral in itself.
Utilitarian thinking follows the principle that the consequences of your actions should result in more global happiness, the happiness of the “whole sentient creation” (Mill).
But you can't now the consequences. You simply can’t. Does the fat man have children that need his financial support? Was he just developing a technology that helps to create a new cheap and healthy food resource for the third world? In Utilitarianism, people have a worth. Otherwise it would not be possible to calculate what you should do. But it could be that the fat man has a bigger worth than the other four. You can’t know it in this situation. And, considering the first example: It ‘s possible that four people will see the trolley coming, whereas a single person won't. More people equals more eyes equals a higher chance of spotting the trolley.
If you kill a person whose worth outweighs that of the others, you’ve acted wrongly, even if your intentions were good.
Thus you could conclude that you shouldn't do anything because you have a higher chance of doing the right thing that way. Utilitarian thinking can lead to moral indifference. “I can’t know the consequences, so I don’t act.” Here we have the problem with utilitarian thinking: It's incredibly hypothetical and only passed on subjective guesses. It's simple not possible to include the "whole sentient creation".
And that’s the reason why I prefer a Kantian approach.

 
At 6:09 AM, December 03, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

The initiation of violence is bad.

Prove it.


That is exactly what the Nuremberg trials did. People could not hide behind the defence that the initiation of violence was acceptable because the law permitted it. As Antigone tells Creon, there is a higher law that that made by the ruler.

There is an entire tradition of natural law that says the same thing that Sophocles did. Men own their own bodies. As such those bodies and the labour of those bodies belongs to them and them alone and there is no way to justify either theft or violence against individuals. I believe that even though he too was a moral relativist Milton, David's father, used part of this argument to justify his opposition to the draft and the Vietnam War.

Of course, I remain willing to learn from anyone here who can show a proper justification for initiating violence against others. Please feel free to show us why it is all right to kill people who do us no harm and why a society that does not respect the right to life or property is superior to one that does.

 
At 8:38 AM, December 03, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...


There's a difference between "stating" and proving. I find utilitarianism much more compelling than rights.


Most people do. The trouble is that you can't really measure utility in the way that economists say because value is subjective. A bike gang may find more utility in raping your daughter than you do in having her remain chase. In a society that does not think much of rape an economist could argue that raping your daughter is the right thing based on your utilitarian methodology. But I do not believe that such an argument is very logical or very useful because it can justify all kinds of horrors.

The fact that lefty economists argue that confiscating Bill Gates' fortune may yield a higher utility than letting him keep it is no justification for theft. Are kill lists OK as long as it is a Democratic President who makes them? Sorry but pretending that you can measure utility does not mean that we can take the utilitarian argument seriously. If you start down the slippery slope of utilitarianism you find justifying all kinds of crimes and atrocities that make no logical or moral sense. The simple fact is that in a world where value is subjective there is no way to apply any utilitarian theory without going astray.

Literally everything you do initiates some degree of violence on somebody.

But this is not true. Most social and economic transactions are voluntary exchanges where no violence is involved.

An extreme example: a train is approaching a car that is stuck on the tracks and there's no time to tell the conductor. Two choices: trespass and pull the e-brake, or do nothing and allow the person in the car to die. Assume (the obvious) that one of those outcomes is better. They both involve violations of someone's rights.

It is a very bad example. When I get on a train I know that there is a chance that the emergency stop can be activated under certain circumstances. When it is activated my rights are not violated. The same is true when I buy a movie ticket. I know that if there is a fire someone is free to pull the alarm or yell fire and disturb my viewing of the movie.

Utilitarianism, in theory, gives you an answer.

It does no such thing. For utilitarianism to be valid you have to have a way to measure utility. In a world where value is subjective there is no way to do that. Think of the arguments for using taxpayer dollars to improve the cultural choices in a city by building an opera house.

I think some libertarians think utilitarianism conflicts with ancap. I disagree; utilitarianism gets you to ancap, or at least minarchism.

Get back to me when you can tell me what a util is and how it can be applied in a world where value is subjective. Utilitarianism is the tool of the authoritarians, not libertarians.

In practice, the concept of property rights, relative to the alternatives, is a utility maximizing one. Maybe not a global maximum, but it's clearly the best option available.

But if you have property rights you have the right to your life and your body. How do you justify taking those rights away? You are trying to suck and blow at the same time. As you get older you find that does not work very well.

 
At 8:40 AM, December 03, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

I think it would be interesting to develop a test consisting of a series of questions that would determine a person's religious beliefs, which mostly don't correspond to his stated beliefs.

Religion should have nothing to do with this argument. Even the Catholic and Protestant theologians who made the Natural Right argument on the basis of faith admitted that it would be just as valid if God did not exist. You don't need to bring God into this discussion any more than you need God to a discussion of arithmetic.

 
At 8:45 AM, December 03, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

Further, observed behavior of utilitarians is that they are bad people. As I have often said, whosoever says he will hold a child in the fire to find a cure for malaria, will hold a child in the fire and forget he was trying to cure malaria.

I do not think that they mean to be bad people. They just wind up going down the slippery slope and are surprised to where it leads. Stalin and Mao used the utilitarian argument to justify their crimes. So did Hitler. And Bush/Obama for that matter.

 
At 8:59 AM, December 03, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

And that’s the reason why I prefer a Kantian approach.

Don't utilitarians think of themselves as having good intentions when proposing many of their evil acts? The Kantian approach would approve of those acts. I prefer to look not only at the motivation but at the consequences of actions. They tell us so much more and are so much more meaningful.

 
At 10:01 AM, December 03, 2012, Anonymous Thrinais said...

In any real situation, there is always uncertainty about some morally-relevant consequence (nothing is harder to predict than the future) and judgement is called for. As in the final trolley example and Dr. Strangelove, I would indeed be more inclined to trust the judgement of someone who was paying the costs he was imposing on others, because humans naturally tend to overweight costs to themselves and underweight costs to others.

I would go so far as to say that this is a general improvement on the pure rights and pure consequences alternatives: violating rights is always bad, but there may be other consequences that justify it. If you are willing to pay the costs you would be imposing on others by violating their rights, because the benefits are larger, you may be justified in doing so. And the law should make you pay, despite the benefits. If you are not willing to pay the costs yourself, you are not justified in imposing them on others. There are obvious problems with this idea, I'm just arguing they are smaller than with pure rights or pure consequences, and some of the problems may be fixable.

In a hypothetical, you can always assume away all the uncertainties, and then you could pose a scenario in which I would flip a switch to save the greater number. But that has no relevance to reality, and is dangerous. For example, in recent years you see people justifying torture based on hypotheticals with assumptions that are not true in the situations in which torture is actually used, which is an example of the point that James A. Donald made above.

 
At 10:09 AM, December 03, 2012, Blogger Joseph Miller said...

VangelV

"But if you have property rights you have the right to your life and your body. How do you justify taking those rights away? You are trying to suck and blow at the same time. As you get older you find that does not work very well."

You're putting words into my mouth. I don't justify taking them away. I'm saying that utilitarianism can defend libertarianism. I think natural rights are the most expedient way of achieving high utility.

"But this is not true. Most social and economic transactions are voluntary exchanges where no violence is involved. "

No? As long as we all live on Earth, privatization cannot get rid of all third party effects. No matter how small the effect, every time someone exhales, the Earth's climate changes.

I'm not advocating that gov't try to solve the problem, just saying that even in our ideal society, rights will be violated.

"It is a very bad example. When I get on a train I know that there is a chance that the emergency stop can be activated under certain circumstances. When it is activated my rights are not violated. The same is true when I buy a movie ticket. I know that if there is a fire someone is free to pull the alarm or yell fire and disturb my viewing of the movie. "

You think it's a bad example only after changing the example. I never said that people knew that there would be an emergency stop. Respond to my example on its own terms.

 
At 11:01 AM, December 03, 2012, Anonymous RKN said...

As in the final trolley example and Dr. Strangelove, I would indeed be more inclined to trust the judgement of someone who was paying the costs he was imposing on others, because humans naturally tend to overweight costs to themselves and underweight costs to others.

I see, so the judgment of a murderer becomes more trustworthy if her final victim is herself?

 
At 11:02 AM, December 03, 2012, Blogger Joseph Miller said...

Further, observed behavior of utilitarians is that they are bad people. As I have often said, whosoever says he will hold a child in the fire to find a cure for malaria, will hold a child in the fire and forget he was trying to cure malaria.

Utilitarianism is a philosophy. The fact that there are people who say they are doing things for utilitarian ends isn't a valid criticism of the philosophy. It's just a reason to be suspicious of do-gooders. They call utilitarianism a form of consequentalism for a reason.

 
At 11:27 AM, December 03, 2012, Anonymous Alexx Kay said...

Patrick has said most of what i would, but I have a pithy quote filed away that says some of it more succinctly.

"As I stood before the gates I realized that I never want to be as certain about anything as were the people who built this place." -Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg on her visit to Auschwitz

 
At 11:39 AM, December 03, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

You're putting words into my mouth. I don't justify taking them away. I'm saying that utilitarianism can defend libertarianism. I think natural rights are the most expedient way of achieving high utility.

But as I pointed out above, utilitarianism is incompatible with the natural rights view. In the real world value is subjective. That means that the basis of utilitarianism is taken away and the utilitarian argument has no foundation on which to stand. If libertarians were foolish enough to accept your argument they allow the utilitarian argument to gain legitimacy that it cannot logically have in the first place. It is better not to provide it with that unearned legitimacy and point out that the utilitarian theorists are empty suits who have no basis for their claims.

No? As long as we all live on Earth, privatization cannot get rid of all third party effects. No matter how small the effect, every time someone exhales, the Earth's climate changes.

All living organisms exhale. Breathing is not evil and does not harm others so your example is a bad one. But since you gave it let me point out to you that if you look at the actual science you find that changes in CO2 levels follow changes in temperatures, not the other way around. You are mixing up cause and effect. And even if you were correct changes are not bad for individuals. In case you haven't noticed civilization thrives when temperatures are higher and suffers when we have cold periods. The world would be a lot better off it were somewhat warmer than it is today. When the average temperatures were 5C higher on average there were no deserts and biological diversity was substantially higher than it is during our current interglacial period. There were hippos in the Sahara and forests in the polar regions.

But this is not a scientific debate so let us not divert attention from the issues at hand.

I'm not advocating that gov't try to solve the problem, just saying that even in our ideal society, rights will be violated.

I have no idea what your 'ideal society' is but I would not consider it ideal if individuals were coerced to do what they would choose not to. In my ideal society people would be free to interact as they chose, property rights would be secure, and transactions would be voluntary.

You think it's a bad example only after changing the example. I never said that people knew that there would be an emergency stop. Respond to my example on its own terms.

On this planet every time you get on a train you take the chance that there would be an emergency stop. Get on a train and look around. You will notice ways to signal for or activate an emergency stop. Not only that but the system is designed that whenever there is a loss of power the breaks are automatically engaged. (Just like amusement park rides are required to stop whenever power is lost.)

The next time you try to give an example think it through and make sure that it is applicable to the real world.

 
At 11:40 AM, December 03, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

I would go so far as to say that this is a general improvement on the pure rights and pure consequences alternatives: violating rights is always bad, but there may be other consequences that justify it. If you are willing to pay the costs you would be imposing on others by violating their rights, because the benefits are larger, you may be justified in doing so.

I am willing to see my taxes go up when I vote in favour of building an Opera House. Does that make me right? How can you really figure out what the benefits are for others when value is subjective? Do you get to make a choice for others because your judgement is supposedly superior to them? If that is the case why not just have the rule of philosopher kings, as totalitarians wish, and forget about rights entirely?

As I argued above, this is a very slippery slope that has historically led to tyranny.

 
At 12:43 PM, December 03, 2012, Anonymous Thrinais said...

I see, so the judgment of a murderer becomes more trustworthy if her final victim is herself?

No, her judgement is what it is. If she'd plausibly argued that there was a net benefit to her actions, I'd be more inclined to believe she was sincere if she was willing to pay the cost. But what I believe about her is irrelevant, the law should still treat her as a murderer, and her claim of net benefit should not mitigate her punishment.

When I said I'd be more inclined to trust the judgement of someone who was paying the costs, I didn't mean I'd say to her "go ahead an do what you feel is right". I meant that averaged over the cases where the perpetrator was willing to pay the price vs cases where he's not, I'd expect less violation of rights where he is. A problem with murder, of course, is that the murderer can't make the victims whole. There will always be difficult choices where doing some good requires violating someones rights. But again, that's not a problem for the law, which in my view should punish a person for the rights violation regardless of the good they were trying to do. It's only a problem for the person who thinks they need to violate rights to accomplish some good.

I am willing to see my taxes go up when I vote in favour of building an Opera House. Does that make me right?

No, it only makes you right if you're willing to pay for the whole opera house. In any case, being willing to bear the costs of violating others rights doesn't make you right, but not being willing to bear them makes you wrong.

How can you really figure out what the benefits are for others when value is subjective? Do you get to make a choice for others because your judgement is supposedly superior to them? If that is the case why not just have the rule of philosopher kings, as totalitarians wish, and forget about rights entirely?

No, I'm saying the law should be entirely rights based. If you need to steal a hammer to save the world, you still pay the price for stealing the hammer.

 
At 1:59 PM, December 03, 2012, Blogger Joseph Miller said...

VangelV,

You persist in nitpicking my examples while ignoring the points I'm trying to make or turning them into strawmen.

Are you even reading what I'm saying? The following example suggests that you don't.

I said (in reference to your fanatical accusation that I justify taking them away):
You're putting words into my mouth. I don't justify taking them away. I'm saying that utilitarianism can defend libertarianism. I think natural rights are the most expedient way of achieving high utility.

And in your response, you wrote:
I would not consider it ideal if individuals were coerced to do what they would choose not to. In my ideal society people would be free to interact as they chose, property rights would be secure, and transactions would be voluntary.

And about CO2, I have to respond, warmer temperatures will probably be good for most people, but will hurt others. Hence, a rights violation. Of course, as a dogmatist, you deny that CO2 has any effect on the climate whatsoever so you can ignore this point.

Anyway, I can see you're unwilling to have an honest discussion.

 
At 2:57 PM, December 03, 2012, Anonymous RKN said...

When I said I'd be more inclined to trust the judgement of someone who was paying the costs, I didn't mean I'd say to her "go ahead an do what you feel is right".

Of course not, and that's not what I understood you to mean.

I meant that averaged over the cases where the perpetrator was willing to pay the price vs cases where he's not, I'd expect less violation of rights where he is.

Which is something considerably different than what you originally wrote, and not something I'm very interested in discussing. In any case thanks for clarifying.

 
At 3:49 PM, December 03, 2012, Blogger Chase said...

Jonathan,

The request for proof of a moral principle is silly. I don't believe anyone can provide proof of his moral principles, whatever they are.

Claiming that moral principles exist is silly. I agree that no one can provide proof of his moral principles, because there isn't any.

In any of these situations, I don't condemn anyone to death unless I take some positive action resulting in death. If I do nothing and people die, they were condemned to death by their own actions, or by someone else's actions.

The act/omission dichotomy is a false one. All acts are omissions; all omissions, acts. Pretending there's a difference gets you nowhere worth going.

Patrick,

You are neither a math nor a philosophy major, huh?

VangelV,

That is exactly what the Nuremberg trials did.

Oh, okay.

/conversation

 
At 7:34 PM, December 03, 2012, Anonymous Mark Bahner said...

Spoiler alert. This is about the movie "Peacemaker." It's about a suitcase nuke in NYC. Don't read further if you haven't seen the movie and don't want to read about an interesting scene in it.

The scene is that a U.S. military sniper is trying to shoot the terrorist, who's walking on a busy sidewalk in NYC. We see the view through the sniper's site. The terrorist is walking under trees and people keep getting in the way...in one case a young child on her father's shoulders.

George Clooney, the anti-terror big daddy, keeps telling the sniper to "take the shot." But the sniper can't bring himself to do it, and the terrorist eventually goes into a subway or a building.

Imagine if that terrorist had detonated the nuke. If the sniper wasn't killed (if I were the sniper, I'd hope to be killed!) the sniper would have to live with the fact that tens or hundreds of thousands of people were killed because he didn't "take the shot".

P.S. On the other hand, if he had taken the shot, and just wounded the terrorist, and the terrorist had then detonated the nuke...well that would be a bummer, too. (The only "good" side to that situation would be that the sniper would almost certainly be killed in the blast.)

 
At 8:23 PM, December 03, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

Are you even reading what I'm saying? The following example suggests that you don't.

I said (in reference to your fanatical accusation that I justify taking them away):
You're putting words into my mouth. I don't justify taking them away. I'm saying that utilitarianism can defend libertarianism. I think natural rights are the most expedient way of achieving high utility.

And in your response, you wrote:
I would not consider it ideal if individuals were coerced to do what they would choose not to. In my ideal society people would be free to interact as they chose, property rights would be secure, and transactions would be voluntary.


I think that you missed the point. I totally disagree that we can talk about achieving high utility because there is no way to measure utility in a world where values are subjective. It is up to utilitarians to show that their methodology is sound and until they do that we should not treat it as such. Utilitarianism is the road to tyranny, not liberty. It is the excuse that is often used by the power hungry to justify doing things that could not be justified on any moral or logical grounds.

When you give in by accepting their argument you only add fuel to the fire and do nothing to advance liberty.

And about CO2, I have to respond, warmer temperatures will probably be good for most people, but will hurt others. Hence, a rights violation. Of course, as a dogmatist, you deny that CO2 has any effect on the climate whatsoever so you can ignore this point.

I am not a 'dogmatist.' As an engineer who has scientific training I prefer to avoid faith and look at empirical evidence. As much as the AGW people talk even the IPCC said that they had no empirical evidence that shows that human emissions of CO2 have driven temperature trends. They said that it must be CO2 because their models can't think of anything else that could be the cause. And you also forget a few things that are actually relevant to the discussion. First of all, there is no meaningful average global temperature just as there is no meaningful average global phone number. And if you understand the measurements you should know that a combination of a mild winter, an early spring, and a late fall can create a high average temperature even if the summer highs are below the average for your typical summer. Talking about such averages is about as meaningful as the Keynesians talking about aggregate measures of aggregate price levels.

Anyway, I can see you're unwilling to have an honest discussion.

Of course I am. But only if you are logical and a clear thinker.

 
At 11:32 PM, December 03, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

Chase, if someone believes in a moral principle, and acts accordingly, then that moral principle exists (in his mind), whether anyone else believes in it or not.

However, such principles are subjective and vary from person to person.

In the same way, various religions exist, although I don't believe in any of them.

"All acts are omissions; all omissions, acts."

You can define inaction as a kind of action if you like, but it makes no difference to me. If I act in such a way that my existence has made no difference to another person's status, then I don't feel responsible for what happens to him. True, in some cases I might feel regret that I didn't choose to help him, but that's not a matter of responsibility. You can help other people without being responsible for them.

 
At 12:25 AM, December 04, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

However, if I choose to help someone, of course I become at least partly responsible for the consequences of my help, good or bad.

 
At 12:27 AM, December 04, 2012, Blogger Joseph Miller said...

Vangel:

To win this argument about CO2, you'll have to persuade me that turning O2 into CO2 has either:

1. No effect whatsoever on third parties
2. Positive and negative effects that balance each other out exactly for every person

Common sense is sufficient to know that CO2 =/= O2 and that third party rights violations are a fact of life. If you don't see that, then we can talk about radon being released from mines; or any other of a billion examples.

 
At 5:05 AM, December 04, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

To win this argument about CO2, you'll have to persuade me that turning O2 into CO2 has either:...

For you to convince a rational person that breathing is evil and harms others you have to show that breathing is not natural.

But I will make it easier for you to win the argument. All you have to do is to provide a link to empirical evidence that shows that human emissions of CO2 are responsible for the supposed change in temperature trends. Please note that the AGW people were saying that to prove them wrong we needed about 15 years without statistically significant warming. Well, we haven't seen statistically significant warming for the past 16 years and if solar activity trends are a guide we are likely to see significant cooling over the next decade or two.

http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2012/10/14/article-2217286-157E3ADF000005DC-561_644x358.jpg

The problem for you is that you look at something that is not well understood by most people, including the 'scientists' who are pushing the argument and assume that they know what they are talking about. Well, I tend to want to see actual evidence and very sound logic because I am not much on faith based positions.

I have to go now. We can take this up later.

 
At 9:29 AM, December 04, 2012, Blogger Chase said...

Jonathan,

if someone believes in a moral principle, and acts accordingly, then that moral principle exists (in his mind), whether anyone else believes in it or not.

"If a schizophrenic believes there are bugs covering the walls, and acts accordingly, then those bugs exist (in his mind), whether anyone else believes in them or not."

Would you agree with the above statement?

If someone prompted the schizophrenic to prove that there were bugs on the walls, would you say, "The request for proof of [bugs on the walls] is silly. I don't believe anyone can provide proof of [bugs/no bugs on the walls]"?

You can define inaction as a kind of action if you like, but it makes no difference to me.

If I define action as a kind of inaction, does that make a difference?

If I act in such a way that my existence has made no difference to another person's status, then I don't feel responsible for what happens to him.

Your existence makes a difference in every person's status inside your light cone. I agree that you should not feel responsible for anything outside said cone.

True, in some cases I might feel regret that I didn't choose to help him, but that's not a matter of responsibility. You can help other people without being responsible for them.

However, if I choose to help someone, of course I become at least partly responsible for the consequences of my help, good or bad.


Prove it.

 
At 9:43 AM, December 04, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

Chase, perhaps you make sense to yourself, but you're ceasing to make any sense to me.

Bugs on the walls are physical objects; a moral principle is an abstract concept that can only exist in someone's mind. If he talks about it, then clearly the concept exists in his mind.

 
At 10:21 AM, December 04, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

Bugs on the walls are physical objects; a moral principle is an abstract concept that can only exist in someone's mind. If he talks about it, then clearly the concept exists in his mind.

That is clearly the view of all individuals that serve totalitarian regimes. For them it is not at all clear that people own their own bodies. As such all individuals are dependent on the state to provide any 'rights' that the ruling class decides are appropriate. And when a new regime takes over it is fully permissible for it to take away some of the old rights if it wishes to do so. It is not a problem when this happens because moral principles are abstract concepts that can only exist in someone's mind and certainly cannot hold a candle to the principles that are laid out by a collective or a ruling class. Such a view holds that everything that is legal is permissible and does not require that individuals think about such trivia as moral principles.

 
At 11:19 AM, December 04, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

This thread is going completely insane. VangeIV, if you don't think a moral principle is an abstract concept, what else do think it is? Is is a physical object? Can you weigh it or take a photograph of it?

Of course, "the principles that are laid out by a collective or a ruling class" are also abstract concepts, just like those in the minds of individuals.

Laws are also abstract concepts. They can of course be written down, but the writing is just a description of an abstract concept.

 
At 12:26 PM, December 04, 2012, Blogger Chase said...

Jonathan,

Chase, perhaps you make sense to yourself, but you're ceasing to make any sense to me.

I'm sorry. What have I said that you failed to understand?

Bugs on the walls are physical objects; a moral principle is an abstract concept that can only exist in someone's mind. If he talks about it, then clearly the concept exists in his mind.

What if he doesn't talk about it? Is it still clear then?

 
At 4:33 PM, December 04, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

This thread is going completely insane. VangeIV, if you don't think a moral principle is an abstract concept, what else do think it is? Is is a physical object? Can you weigh it or take a photograph of it?

Basic arithmetic is abstract too. We can't weigh one plus one and see that it is two. But it is still valid and the principles are still true.

The question is a simple one. Do you own your own body or not? If the answer is yes that is a good starting point for natural rights and we can move on from there. If it is no then anything is permissible as long as someone has power.

Of course, "the principles that are laid out by a collective or a ruling class" are also abstract concepts, just like those in the minds of individuals.

If they are arbitrary why should the laws be followed?

Laws are also abstract concepts. They can of course be written down, but the writing is just a description of an abstract concept.

Like I said, so are algebraic rules. But abstract or not they are based on principle, make sense, and are logical. For laws to be meaningful and just they have to be based on sound principles.

 
At 9:23 PM, December 04, 2012, Blogger Tymothy Michel said...

Walk away and let karma sort it out. After all it is not you who should decide who lives or dies for in doing so, you may change the destiny of people. The gods will decide, as they always have. There will be those of little or no faith that will be upset by my answer, but then they also are only following their fate. We live in a closed circle that is not run by humankind. Once one accepts this, many questions are more easily answered, and before anyone gets angered and makes statements about not acting in an event, realize that your action in an event may have been planned as well and you are merely acting in harmony with the plan of the gods.

 
At 11:39 PM, December 04, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

VangeIV, when I observed that a moral principle is an abstract concept that can exist only in someone's mind, I meant that merely as a description, not as a criticism. Yes, arithmetic is an abstract concept too.

However, I observe also that you can prove statements in mathematics, whereas I don't know any way of proving moral statements.

You ask whether I own my own body. Well, I'd like to own it, and I believe I ought to own it, but in practice governments seem able to take charge of it, by deploying more force than I can command.

Laws are followed, again, because governments are able to enforce them, whether they are arbitrary or not.

Moral principles, on the other hand, are followed voluntarily by the individuals who believe in them.

 
At 8:49 AM, December 05, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

You ask whether I own my own body. Well, I'd like to own it, and I believe I ought to own it, but in practice governments seem able to take charge of it, by deploying more force than I can command.

This is a good start. You believe that people should own themselves and not be slaves but accept the fact that you can be forced into slavery by those that have more guns.

The next question is simple. Does the fact that they have guns make them right? Is might right? Now you can argue as my neoconservative political philosophy professor did and say that Thrasymachus was right when he stated that justice is what the ruling class says it is. That leads us to moral relativism and can justify slavery, genocide, and all kinds of activities that are usually frowned upon in polite society. But if you argue otherwise and say that there is such a thing as justice that is not dependent on the use of force we are back to our natural rights argument again.

The bottom line is that you seem to be arguing that your natural rights can be taken away, not that you don't have them. History shows that you are correct but does not show, and cannot show that natural rights do not exist because in order for men to live together in society there has to be some form of agreement between them. What I find ironic is that men like David actually give the totalitarians ammo when they try to take away our rights and liberties because they support the idea that we have no rights and liberties other than what the ruling elite chooses to give us.

 
At 8:50 AM, December 05, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

Moral principles, on the other hand, are followed voluntarily by the individuals who believe in them.

They are contractual for all men who live together in society because without agreement about rights they can be taken away from them not just by the biggest gang of thugs with the most weapons but by anyone.

 
At 10:08 AM, December 05, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

VangeIV, I've been calling myself a libertarian for the last 30 years, and I don't believe that might is right.

However, it seems to me that there are two kinds of rights: legal rights, which you have (at least in theory), and moral rights, which you think you ought to have.

Neither of these is a 'natural' right: your legal rights are created by whoever makes the laws, and your moral rights are your own personal aspiration, created by you.

In the absence of law and law enforcement, you may wish for rights, but you don't actually have any in practice.

Legal rights are imperfect because they probably don't match your own concept of moral rights, but they're usually better than nothing.

My ideal is to live in a society without government, but such an anarchy would need to be able to make and enforce laws (as described in The Machinery of Freedom), otherwise it would be intolerably unpleasant and would soon cease to exist.

When you say that moral principles "are contractual for all men who live together in society", the contract is generally known as "law". Law is, in effect, a compromise between the differing moralities of the people who get together to make the law.

 
At 8:14 PM, December 05, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

When you say that moral principles "are contractual for all men who live together in society", the contract is generally known as "law". Law is, in effect, a compromise between the differing moralities of the people who get together to make the law.

No it isn't, at least not in the way you are thinking of it. There used to be a time not that long ago when judges discovered law, not applied regulations written by politicians. I think that you need to read up a bit on customs or common law and do some reading on natural law theory before you try to justify the might makes right approach and the arbitrary laws passed by the thugs that happens to be in charge at the time. When learning about natural law my 12-year old son found Antigone quite instructive and liked the movie Judgement at Nuremberg. He pointed out that in one of the versions of the Play that he saw the lefty director got rid of the whole point of the play, that there was a higher law than that of the king in favour of action out of duty. If people who call themselves libertarians ignore justice and morality and accept the rule of thugs without much of a comment or complaint it is no wonder that freedom is being lost everywhere. I do not ask that you initiate violence against anyone or even that you hate the state but only that you acknowledge the fact that politicians have no right to pass arbitrary rules that violate natural rights and that you withdraw your consent as much as you can. But the fact that you can't even see the problem as it is shows that 'libertarians' have a long way to go.

 
At 11:39 PM, December 05, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

VangeIV, you're replying to what you think I wrote and not to what I actually wrote. I don't believe that might is right and I don't believe that the laws passed by governments are right.

I do believe that the laws passed by governments are usually better than no laws at all; but that's not saying much.

The expression "natural law" seems self-contradictory to me. Laws and rights are not 'natural', they are human constructs, like a computer or a car or a hamburger.

If you don't think I'm a proper libertarian because I don't believe in your notion of "natural rights", well, you're entitled to your opinion, but I'm afraid I disregard it.

Libertarians are free to have different opinions about things. I'm willing to consider you a libertarian even though you have crazy ideas about law.

Incidentally, I also have a 12-year-old son.

 
At 1:51 AM, December 06, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

I'd regard a law as 'right' if it's consistent with my personal morality and my personal preferences. However, as my morality and preferences may well be unique to me, it would be most remarkable to find any real set of laws that all seemed 'right' to me, unless I wrote them myself.

I therefore have to resign myself to living under laws some of which seem wrong to me, whatever kind of society I may be living in and whatever the political setup.

However, some societies surely have worse laws than other societies.

 
At 5:42 AM, December 06, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

I do believe that the laws passed by governments are usually better than no laws at all; but that's not saying much.

I do not believe that anyone is talking about no laws at all. I am talking about natural laws which prohibit the initiation of violence against anyone and their property and contract law, which means that you keep your word. Those are sufficient for a civilized society and are not required to come from government.

This issue has been dealt with by a number of writers. I suggest that you look at Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice, The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State, The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society, Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State, or The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier to see examples of how workable laws are created in the absence of a state. For a great example you can take a look at the great fairs in the Middle Ages. They were self-regulated through Lex mercatoria, the "merchant law", which had little to do with any particular government but was private law that managed disputes in the commercial and banking sectors that operated across national boundaries and jurisdictions. I believe that David touched on customs and common law in his latest book, Law's Order but can't be sure about how much or how well he went over the subject because many of my books, including those cited above, are in temporary storage over the next few weeks.

On the topic of Natural Law you might want to look to someone like Lon Fuller or Gerard Casey. Fuller's book The Morality of Law does a wonderful job of explaining why critics like David miss the boat.

The expression "natural law" seems self-contradictory to me. Laws and rights are not 'natural', they are human constructs, like a computer or a car or a hamburger.

That is because you do not understand the argument. If I take a healthy sheep and put it together with a healthy wolf I can tell you what the outcome will be no matter which country the sheep and wolf happen to reside in. If I want to build a house that lasts I better be aware of the natural laws that will permit it to remain standing for a long time. And as Gerrard Casey points out, if you look at customs laws you find that they all tend to converge on the prohibition of certain acts that common sense would say are wrong in themselves always and everywhere. We certainly cannot have a functioning society that permits indiscriminate theft and murder. All functioning societies prohibit murder, assault, and theft. Which is basically all we need to have a civilized society. There is nothing moral, ethical, or right about a legal system that tells you how big your toilet tank should be, how much water is permissible through your shower, or what kinds of appliances you may purchase. When a society moves from natural law to legal positivism it moves down the slippery slope of tyranny.

I have to go to the gym now. I will take up the rest of the points later.

 
At 6:42 AM, December 06, 2012, Blogger Jonathan said...

VangeIV, as a libertarian I agree with the sort of laws that you seem to want, and I agree that they don't necessarily have to be made or enforced by governments; I merely don't agree with calling them "natural laws". They're laws made by humans and enforced by humans; they're neither made nor enforced by the universe.

Whereas the law of gravity, for instance, is made and enforced by the universe. No humans are needed to enforce it.

 
At 6:05 PM, December 06, 2012, Blogger VangelV said...

VangeIV, as a libertarian I agree with the sort of laws that you seem to want, and I agree that they don't necessarily have to be made or enforced by governments; I merely don't agree with calling them "natural laws". They're laws made by humans and enforced by humans; they're neither made nor enforced by the universe.

Humans do have natural characteristics that make them human. Natural law is the recognition of what they are, nothing more. The statists don't like the idea because it limits the power of those who seek to justify controlling others. And most of the critique aims at setting up arguments that are never made in the first place. As I said, we begin with self ownership and do not really move very far because that is all that is needed for a civilized society.

 

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