Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Question for Bleeding Heart Libertarians

In a recent post, I took issue with Jason Brennan's claim that "You might be a cartoon libertarian if: 1. You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today." One point that came up in the discussion thread was the suggestion that the BHL folks, who are (I think) all or mostly academic philosophers, are unfairly prejudiced against other people who are not.

Apropos of which, I have two simple questions for Jason or any of the others associated with the BHL blog:

1. Do you believe that the derivation of the rule that, as one of you put it, "lies at the heart of John Rawls’s theory of social justice," is more intellectually defensible than any of the items on Jason's list of criteria for recognizing a cartoon libertarian? Is his derivation of the minimax rule more defensible than the claim that "Ayn Rand’s critiques of Kant or Plato (or any philosopher, for that matter) are insightful." Than the claim that  “'social justice' has no definite meaning in philosophy today." Than the claim that "there are no involuntary positive duties to others."

If the answer is that you think Rawls' argument is more defensible than any of those, I would be happy to argue the matter with you. When I raised the question with Zwolinski and Tomasi in a recent exchange, I got a response which I interpreted as implying that they were unwilling to defend Rawls.

Supposing you are not willing to defend Rawls, at least to that limited extent, the obvious next question is:

2. Would you be willing to describe Rawls as a "cartoon liberal?"

Preferably online or in print.

If the answer to both questions is "no," I do not see how you can defend yourself against the charge that you have a double standard, treat arguments made by academic philosophers, at least famous ones, with more respect than arguments made by other people—even when both are equally bad.

Which is not, I think, consistent with justice in the ordinary sense of the term.

P.S. Thinking about this in response to comments, I concluded that I had overstated my argument. Jason did not say that Rand was a cartoon libertarian, although for all I know he thinks she is, he said that you might be a cartoon libertarian if you think certain of her writings are insightful. Applying the same standard to him, the question I should have asked is whether he would be willing to say that:
You may be a cartoon liberal if you think Rawls' argument for the minimax principle deserves respect.
P.P.S. Jason has now responded to this (and my previous post criticizing me) on his blog.


Nick said...

By my count its DF 3, BHL 0.

That nonsense on their blog about "cartoon libertarianism" was funny though. At first I thought it was satire.

Anonymous said...

I think to follow Rawls would be a bad mistake for libertarians, it would essentially be re-capitulating the "decline of liberalism" in the early 20th century, when liberals started to follow Statist-tinged ideas such as TH Green's Idealism-inspired doctrines, and the BHLs would just end up as - plain old contemporary "liberals".

Fundamentally, while it's true that we "owe" a lot to other people, and to past generations, those are, from those others' points of view, positive externalities that they long ago gave up on claiming a return for.

From behind a Veil of Ignorance, this indebtedness (hence posited organicity of society) is as much wiped clean as knowledge of one's own powers. So a Veil of Ignorance can't be used to deduce indebtedness (to past/present/future generations, etc.)

Politics is the art of compromise between potentially dangerous human beings who are self-steering, and who have their own ideas about what's right and proper. Everyone has their own ideas about the powers they bring to the table for the rest of our benefit.

It is to this fully-knowledged-up (within reason) person that we must appeal, here and now, to deduce what's appropriate and fair conduct (in this person's view) for people interacting with (mostly) strangers in a free, open polity.

David Friedman said...

I don't think the BHL people want to follow Rawls, at least in any detail. But they do want to speak respectfully of him.

I'm arguing that they do so for dishonorable (although perhaps excusable), not honorable, reasons, and inviting them to show me that I am mistaken.

Unknown said...

I think "dishonorable" is a bit harsh. They might speak respectfully of Rawls out of a mistaken deference to academic philosophers. But there's a difference between intellectual error and wicked intentions, as you have you have pointed out.

Anonymous said...

This whole line of attack against BHL seems to misunderstand what they mean by "cartoon". When they say cartoon, they mean holding strong beliefs on topics that you don't understand and haven't really thought about much.

Their claim is that lots of the libertarian movement is like that. I don't know if it's true, but regardless, it's certainly not true of Rawls. He might be wrong, but he certainly thought carefully about the relevant issues, and understands their complexity.

So claiming that if they don't call Rawls a cartoon liberal that they're being unfair is (deliberately?) misunderstanding what they mean by "cartoon". Note that in no circumstance would they call you a cartoon anything.

David Friedman said...

dmorr writes:

"Note that in no circumstance would they call you a cartoon anything."

Whether they call me a cartoon anything I don't know. But the very first item on Jason's list was a claim I had made in arguing with two other BHL people and Jason had criticized me for making on the BHL blog.

Whether Rawls had thought carefully about the issues I don't know, but the outcome of his thought, taken seriously by lots of people, was a position that I find it hard to see how anyone could defend.

If they are going to argue about ideas, which seems to be their general project, it seems to me they ought to apply the same standards to all. If they aren't willing to be rude to prominent academic philosophers for making bad arguments, I don't think they should be willing to be rude to libertarian non-academics for arguing making bad arguments. Hence my point about a double standard.

But I wouldn't mind their merely saying "If you take Rawls minimax argument seriously, you might be a cartoon liberal," which would be more nearly the equivalent of what they have been saying with regard to libertarians.

Maxim said...

You picked a great example -- Rawls' maximin principle was derived so sloppily that it's the thing I remember most from a college philosophy class. One would have to assume that people "behind the veil of ignorance" have *infinite* risk aversion for the maximin principle to make any sense.

Matt Zwolinski said...

I hope to have time to write a more substantive response to your posts later. But here is what I would say briefly about Rawls.
1) Yes, I think that Rawls' defense of the maximin principle is "more defensible" than Rand's critique of Kant or Plato. Given that Rand never actually bothered to read Kant, and that her critique of him has precious little to do with what he actually said, this is not a terribly high bar.
2) It's hard to say whether Rawls' argument is "more defensible" than the other two claims you report, as it seems like you're asking me to compare apples (Rawls' *argument*) vs. oranges (several conclusions for which many different arguments could be given). I think a lot of people who make both of those claims do so with insufficient evidence or thought. And when they do so, their reasoning is by far less defensible than Rawls'. But I have seen arguments for at least the "no positive duties" claim that seem quite respectable.
3) I also think it's defensible to say that the term social justice has no definite meaning in philosophy, as long as you put a lot of stress on the word "definite." If you do, though, I think the same could be said of a lot of perfectly respectable concepts. i.e., I think it's true that the term "happiness" has no definite meaning in philosophy today. Or "justice, sans social," for that matter. So I'm not sure much follows from this as far as a critique of the notion of social justice goes.
4) Rawls' argument for maximin is flawed. And the conclusion is false. But so what? I know the maximin thing is the part of Rawls that everybody knows and that gets reprinted in all the textbooks. But there is much, much more to Rawls than that. Jason, Kevin, and I have all criticized Rawls extensively in our published work. But there is no doubt that he was a brilliant philosopher who made a large number of insightful and innovative contributions to political thought. The idea of the Original Position itself was terrific, his criticism of utilitarianism was sound, and Part III of TJ (which almost nobody reads) is full of fascinating discussions of goodness, rationality, and moral psychology. And all this is not even to mention Political Liberalism which, in my view, is a much better and more defensible book.

David Friedman said...


Unless I am mistaken, the original position was published by Harsanyi nearly twenty years before Rawls, and he followed out the logic of the argument to its obvious conclusion, which is maximizing average Von-Neumann utility.

My complaint about Rawls is that the key step in his central argument, which amounts to infinite risk aversion, makes no sense and he pretends to justify it with a lot of hand waving that also makes no sense. That doesn't prove his other work is worthless, but taken by itself it is evidence against him at least as good as the evidence against libertarians provided by various of the things Jason lists. And, as in that case, he is offering a bad argument in support of something that he and those who agree with his politics want an argument for.

To be fair, Jason doesn't say "you are a cartoon libertarian if" but only that you might be. Hence the modified version I offered in the comments:

"If you take Rawls minimax argument seriously, you might be a cartoon liberal."

Would you be willing to say that? Alternatively, to claim that that argument is more defensible than the sort of bad arguments by libertarians that Jason offers?

The claim that Rawls is brilliant isn't, I think, relevant. Rand was brilliant, but that doesn't justify the holes in her arguments.

Also, how can reasoning be less defensible than Rawls' in the particular example being discussed, if his reasoning makes no sense at all--depends on an unjustified assumption he cannot defend as the key step? I don't think very highly of Rand's solution to the is/ought problem, but it strikes me as if anything a little less obviously indefensible than that.

I look forward to a longer reply by you or Jason. In particular, I think your point 3 is wrong. "Justice" has a much clearer meaning (which isn't to say it is clear what things are just) than "social justice," and a definition that depends, as one of Jason's does, on "minimally decent lives" is not only mush but dishonest mush, for the reason I pointed out in my earlier post.

And, if you have time and energy, you might also try to defend your field against my usual unkind comment--that there is a reason why philosophers still read Aristotle and physicists (and economists) don't, and it has to do with the amount of progress in the different fields over the past few millenia.

Kent McManigal said...

Everything I have ever read about "social justice" eventually boils down to "Equality through theft". No thanks.

RP Long said...

What kills me is that the BHLers are actually defending this "cartoon libertarian" business.

Let us assume the absolute best of the BHL crowd and draw an analogy:

Suppose Pythagorus decided to single out a small group of his followers and call them "cartoon mathematicians" because they were always running around Athens, making invalid geometric proofs.

What I mean is, wouldn't we all be better off if - poor, mistaken souls that we are - somebody taught us something, rather than taking pot-shots at us for not getting it exactly correct?


Matt Zwolinski said...

Just to be clear, Ryan and David - I have never called anybody a "cartoon libertarian" in my life. And I don't call people cartoon liberals either. I try to engage seriously with people's arguments, even when I think they are deeply mistaken. I hope the history of my blogging at BHL and at, not to mention my academic work, reflect this. I am not commenting here to defend Jason's use of that term. I am commenting here because some of the points that David raised in his original post are aimed directly at me, and because I think the question about Rawls is worth engaging with, regardless of all the "cartoon" business.

I think the business about "dishonest" mush is unwarranted, David, and uncalled for.

You're right about Harsanyi using something like the original position prior to Rawls. So Rawls can't get credit for inventing it, even if he does (I think) get significant credit for providing a more thoroughgoing defense of the approach, developing the idea and integrating it within a larger theory of justice. And, look, it's not as if he has *no* argument for the risk aversion of parties in the OP, or against the principle of utility. And many of those arguments are really quite good. I don't think they justify maximin, at the end of the day. But he's not just making stuff up. This is all developed quite extensively in chapter 3.

As for terms like "justice" and "happiness" - if you think that these have a definite meaning in philosophy, I'd be interested in hearing what they are.

David Friedman said...


I am all in favor of Jason coming here to defend himself, and realize that you are not responsible for his sins, any more than I am responsible for Rothbard's.

I don't think "dishonest mush" is unwarranted. The term "minimally decent lives" obviously is intended to imply some sort of objective standard of what is minimally decent, even if not a perfectly precise one. Since the term "social justice" is supposed to be applicable to lots of different societies, not just the U.S. in the early 21st century, that requires that "minimally decent life" be so applicable. For the reason I pointed out in my earlier post, it isn't. Either you define it in a way so restricted that none of the people you (or Jason) offer the definition to will accept it, or a fixed standard implies that almost nobody who has ever lived had a minimally decent life, hence that the concept of social justice is irrelevant to almost all human societies that ever existed.

Pretending to have an objective definition when you don't, which is what that term is doing, is dishonest. Of course, people who use such a term without thinking about it may not themselves be being dishonest--but people making arguments about such things ought to think about them. That's the core of Jason's objection to cartoon libertarians, after all, and I am arguing that it applies to him as well.

So far as Rawls' defense, I read the book long ago, so am going on my memory, which is that none of the arguments he offered would be convincing to anyone who didn't want to be convinced. When, for instance, he asks how you would explain to a poor person that his interest was being sacrificed for that of someone better off than himself, the obvious response, which Rawls (by memory) does not deal with, is to ask how you would explain to the better off person that his interest was being sacrificed to that of the poor person--especially if a huge amount of his interest was being sacrificed for a trivial benefit to the poor person, as Rawls' argument implies it should be.

Perhaps we can go into this at greater length and you can describe what you think are arguments in Rawls for the minimax criterion that deserve respect either in this thread or at some other time and place. I don't remember finding any.

David Friedman said...

A few more responses to Matt:

1. Utilitarianism.

There are arguments to be made against utilitarianism, but it's hard to make them if you start with the Harsanyi/Rawls initial position and are claiming that the just society is the one someone in the initial situation would choose. Von Neumann utility already takes risk aversion into account. All you need is the assumption that someone in the initial situation regards all possible life roles as equally likely for him, which makes more sense than assuming that he is certain of the worst outcome, and you are home--he will choose the society that maximizes average utility. So I don't see why you consider Rawls an improvement on Harsanyi. Harsanyi follows the argument where it leads, Rawls forces it around to point where he wants to go.

2. You speak of the "risk aversion of parties in the OP." Do you mean the infinite risk aversion? That's what the argument requires. Ordinary risk aversion is already built into the definition of utility, so all it gets you to is utilitarianism, as per my point 1.

3. At a tangent ... . I think the average utility version of utilitarianism is indefensible for reasons I went into in "What Does Optimum Population Mean?" Research in Population Economics, Vol. III (1981), Eds. Simon and Lindert. If so, that's an argument against the whole initial position approach.

Ross Levatter said...

DF: "[Rawls] asks how you would explain to a poor person that his interest was being sacrificed for that of someone better off than himself, the obvious response, which Rawls (by memory) does not deal with, is to ask how you would explain to the better off person that his interest was being sacrificed to that of the poor person"

I seem to recall that Bob Nozick, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, went into some detail on exactly this issue, arguing David's point with devastating effect.

Matt Zwolinski said...

Ross beat me to pointing out that Nozick quite justly took issue with the specific Rawlsian argument you raise. So have a lot of other people, including me. Not Rawls' best moment. (Indeed, if memory serves me correctly, he drops it from the second edition of TJ - though it didn't seem to alter his conclusions in any relevant way).

You claim that talk of "minimally decent lives" is dishonest mush, because Jason pretends it has an objective meaning when it clearly doesn't.

First, it's worth noting that it was you, not Jason, who introduced talk of "objectivity" here. The fact that Jason never explicitly claimed the standard to be "objective" makes, I think, the specific charge of "dishonesty" somewhat hard to sustain.

Second, whether the term has any objective meaning depends on what you mean by "objective." "Minimally decent life" surely doesn't have an objective referent in the way that, say, "the number of hydrogen molecules in a molecule of water" does. But does that mean that it's "mush"?

I don't think so. There are clear examples of lives that fall below the threshold of "minimally decent" - say, a child born amongst the poorest of the poor in the developing world, who dies of dehydration at age 3. And there are lives that clearly fall well above the threshold of minimally decent. So somewhere between those two lives, there's a dividing line. We can't specify exactly where that line is, but so what? We can't really specify where the line between childhood and adulthood, or between blue and green is either. We don't need to identify the dividing line precisely to recognize that there are clear differences on either side.

I don't suppose there's any reason to think that what constitutes a "minimally decent life" must be invariant across time and culture. After all, ought implies can, so it wouldn't make any sense to say that Ancient Greece failed to provide its citizens with minimally decent lives because it failed to provide adequate neonatal intensive units. By contrast, that claim would be at least *sensible* in the contemporary United States, even if on consideration we concluded it to be false.

As for Rawls's argument for the difference principle, I would again stress that this is *not* what I take to be Rawls' most important or justifiable contribution. But, since you asked, I would refer you to Sam Freeman's discussion at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which explains the role that maximin does (and does not) play in that argument. My point in doing so, again, is not to claim that the argument works. It's just to show that there's an argument there, and a fairly sophisticated and reasonable one:

And now, I'm afraid, it's back to bluebooks for me. A rather less enjoyable task than chatting with you, but it's that time of year...

David Friedman said...


As I think I already made clear, "dishonesty" was predicated of the term, not the person who used it--he might merely have failed to think through the meaning of the words he used.

So far as objectivity, it seems to me that describing something as a minimally decent standard of life implies, in ordinary English usage, a fixed standard, whether or not a precise one. Can you take seriously the idea of saying, of two identical lives, that one was minimally decent and one was not merely because one was lived in 1950 and one in 1850? "Minimally decent" is supposed to be predicated of the life, not of a comparison between the life and other lives.

Words have meanings. If what Jason meant was "as good a life as others could provide him with, without giving up much of their own standard of life," or something similar, he could have said so. That would still be imprecise but it wouldn't be dishonest, because it wouldn't be phrased in a way that implied some fixed standard.

As I think I already implied in one of my posts, if one did choose a fixed, objective standard, say the minimum consumption level at which someone's life was not drastically shortened by the lack of food and shelter, you would end up with a number that most people in your conversation would regard as offensively low, somewhere around a thousand dollars a year. Do you think that's what Jason meant?

Whether Rawls argument for the difference principal is is most important contribution is irrelevant to my question. Jason is happy to condemn Rand's critique of Kant without worrying about whether Rand was a brilliant and original novelist--which, in my opinion, she was. And he is right to do so.

I don't think either of you has responded to the improved version of my question. Would you feel confortable saying that if you take Rawls' derivation of the difference principal seriously, you might be a cartoon liberal? Would Jason ("cartoon" isn't your term)?

Matt Zwolinski said...


I thought I answered your question about cartoons above. I would not call Rawls a cartoon liberal, nor would I call someone who took the difference principle seriously. Then again, I wouldn't call someone who believed in the NAP a cartoon libertarian either, even though I disagree with that principle.

I suppose I'm a bit puzzled about what to say regarding your skepticism about minimally decent lives. Here's one last try.

Suppose the state of the world was such that no matter what anyone did, no matter how hard they tried, people's lives would be filled mostly with agonizing suffering followed by a long, drawn out death. You could do things to make the suffering more or less intense, but suffering as such is unavoidable. In that sense, I posit, it would not be sensible to define a minimally decent life as one that was not filled with constant suffering. That would be akin to defining a minimally decent life as one in which all our wishes were satisfied and we never died. Sure, it'd be nice, but it's a fantasy.

Suppose, on the other hand, that we lived in a world in which it really was possible - maybe even relatively easy! - to make it so no one lived lives filled mostly with suffering. In that case, I posit, it would make perfect sense to define a minimally decent life as one that was not filled with constant suffering.

Do you disagree that the definition would be insensible in the first case, but sensible in the second? If not, then you agree with me that the meaning of the term might sensibly be relative.

David Friedman said...


On minimally decent lives.

It seems to me that the obvious description of your first state of the world is that it is one in which nobody gets to live even a minimally decent life.

The alternative, which seems to follow from your approach, is to say that in that hypothetical hell everyone is living a minimally decent life, and it's just too bad that a minimally decent life sucks. Do you really think that's a natural use of language?

And if that is your approach, why don't you apply it to terms such as "agonizing suffering?" Wouldn't it make just as much sense to say that you have misdescribed your first hypothetical? It may look pretty grim to us, but you shouldn't call it "agonizing suffering" since in that world it's the norm. Maybe "mild discomfort."

Matt Zwolinski said...

The difference between "minimally decent life" and "agonizing suffering" is that the former is a normative term, whereas the latter is not. More specifically, in the context in which this term is being used by Jason, it is a normative term having to do with interpersonal obligation. Because interpersonal obligations can vary with context, so too can the meaning of this term.

Compare with "cruel and unusual punishment." When lethal injection is available, execution by hanging (a quick break of the neck) might very well be the least cruel way of killing someone, and so not cruel and unusual. The development of alternative and less painful methods of execution, however, change the meaning (or at least the referent class) of "cruel and unusual."

As for your earlier point about Rawls, my claim (of course) was not merely that Rawls was a brilliant person. It was that he was a brilliant political philosopher. So that seems pretty relevant to settling the question of why we BHLs talk respectfully about him. He's a brilliant political philosopher, Theory of Justice is a brilliant work (though not his best), and the difference principle is an interesting and reasonably defended idea, even if it is not the most important idea of TJ or ultimately defensible given Rawls' argument (or any other of which I am aware).

David Friedman said...


"More specifically, in the context in which this term is being used by Jason, it is a normative term having to do with interpersonal obligation. "

That's what he is doing with it, but since that isn't what the words actually mean in ordinary English, doing that with it is a way of misleading the reader, not of informing him. You could make the same excuse for any misuse of language--it wasn't a misuses, because that was how you were using it.

Suppose I started my blog post with "Since Matt and Jason have now agreed that I was right and they were wrong in all the points we have disagreed about, ..."

You object that you haven't agreed to anything of the sort.

I explain that of course, in the context of my post, I was using "have now agreed" to mean "have been unable to make arguments to the contrary that I find convincing."

So far as "cruel and unusual," "unusual" is obviously a context dependent term.

You seem to be now claiming that Rawls' derivation of the Difference Principle, although in your view not correct, was defensible. Is that correct? Perhaps on some other occasion you can try to defend it and see if you persuade me that it is, if not true, at least defensible.

How about "would you say that anyone who takes Rawls' minimax derivation of the difference principle seriously might be a cartoon liberal?"

Whether the derivation is nonsense doesn't depend either on whether other things Rawls did are worthy of respect or even on whether the conclusion is indefensible.

Matt Zwolinski said...


I don't know what else to say about "minimally decent lives" that I haven't already said. And I fear that if I keep repeating myself, this conversation will never end. So perhaps it's best to move on.

As for Rawls, please read the SEP article to which I have referred to for an explanation of Rawls' derivation. My position, you correctly state, is that the argument is defensible but not sound.

And, for what I really hope is the last time, I do not call people cartoons. So no how many times you ask me, the answer is "no," I would not describe such a person as a cartoon liberal.

David Friedman said...


I concede that you do not call people cartoons. But my challenge was offered to a group of people of whom you are one, and one of the other members of that group did, so I think it reasonable to ask any of you whether you would.

Especially since Jason is apparently unwilling to argue with me on my blog, only on his, and you have been willing to do so.

Hume said...


I’m not a Rawlsian by any stretch of the imagination (I consider myself libertarian-ish, and I find myself in agreement with A. John Simmons more often than most (thus at the very least 'philosophical' anarchism (dont like that term)), but I’m not sure why you focus on the difference principle in general and (most saliently) the maximin principle in particular. If one makes it that far, one has already swallowed a rather large dose of Rawls, or has found much to agree with in his general outlook and approach to political philosophy and the concept of justice.

(1) justice is a functional concept, its principles are to be assessed in relation to their ability to serve a particular social function (e.g., governing a society of free and equal citizens).
(2) the principles of justice apply first and foremost to institutions, not to the day-to-day decisions of us regular folk; and the principles that do apply to individuals are institution-focused.
(3) in theorizing about a just society, we are to take certain facts/feasibility constraints into account; these facts act as adequacy conditions on proposed principles/theories of justice.
(4) “desert” cannot be assessed in the absence of morally appropriate background conditions.
(5) “desert” or “merit” is close to meaningless outside the context of social rules and standards, and one’s individual contribution is miniscule if not impossible to disentangle from the contributions of everyone else (striking similarities with Hayek).
(6) every person/moral agent is endowed with the two moral powers (capacity to have a comprehensive life plan and conception of the good, and capacity to abide by conception of justice).
(7) stability concerns.
(8) principles of justice are to be justifiable to all whose conduct falls within the principles’ scope, and justification is to be assessed from some sort of impartial starting point.
(9) similar to 4 and 5, ‘skill’ and ‘talent’ are not universally fixed by some sort of objectively-assessed timeless criteria, but are determined by context and the arbitrary wants and desires of all. Someone considered ‘talented’ in the 21st century for tying a firecracker to his junk and tattooing a picture of his face on his back was seen as worthless 500 years ago.
(10) along the lines of 1, 3, and 7, proposed principles of justice are to be assessed by how well they permit ‘just institutions’ to reproduce themselves in morally-appropriate ways (e.g., taking into certain general ‘facts’ about moral and human psychology, including certain motivational structures, do the principles lead to trust, companionship, etc., or do they lead to mistrust, hatred, and conflict?)

There is much, much more that can be said. I find the difference principle stuff the least interesting of Rawls’ work. The intense focus it has received is more a sign of the times, a time that was and still is misguided in its intense, devout-like focus on egalitarianism. I think Rawls himself at times got caught up in the fervor, but I also think that his vision was much more general and all-encompassing. I find much value in his work, although I disagree with some of his most fundamental meta-claims (I do not think one can provide a comprehensive account without doing metaphysics and metaethics, cannot go into that here).