Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Jason Brennan Defends, I Reply

Jason Brennan has now responded to my criticism. He did so on his blog rather than in comments on mine, so I will rerespond here instead of there.

His first response to my claim that "social justice" has no definite meaning is to concede that I am correct if "definite" is taken in a strong sense. It does not seem to have occurred to him that that concession raises problems for his earlier post, in which his very first "you may be a cartoon libertarian if" criterion was "You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today."

He argues, however, that even if "social justice" does not have a precise meaning, it describes a cluster of related ideas and so is as precise as other terms used in philosophy. A simple test of that claim is whether he can use his definition to say what is a theory of social justice and what is not, and he attempts to do so. 

To illustrate the failure of that attempt, I offer three quotes from his post:
 1. “Theories of social justice focus on the idea that moral justification of coercive institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor or least advantaged.”

2. “Few advocates of social justice think this is the only criterion of legitimacy or justice.”

3. “The most basic form of utilitarianism is a theory of distributive justice but not social justice, because it has no special concern for the poor or least advantaged.” 
Point 2 implies that serving the interests of the poor or least advantaged only has to be one of the things determining justice, not the only thing. Utilitarianism has no special concern for the poor or least advantaged, but it includes their utility in the total (or average) it is maximizing, hence the serving of their interests is one of the things determining justice for a utilitarian; if the poor do worse in society A than in society B and everyone else does exactly as well, then A is a less justified. It follows that, contrary to point 3, utilitarianism is (among other things) a theory of social justice.

To avoid this conclusion, Jason has to introduce the requirement of "special concern for the poor or least advantaged" (italics mine). We have been here before. My clash with BHL folk over the question of what "social justice" means started in an exchange with Zwolinski and Tomasi on Cato Unbound where I made the point I have just made, and got the following response:
As David notes, utilitarians care about the poor in the same way they care about everyone else: their interests are to be taken into consideration equally along with the interests of everyone else. Advocates of social justice, in contrast, seem to care about the poor in a deeper sort of way: in Rawls’ version, the interests of the least well-off have a very strong moral priority over the interests of everyone else.

This is a fine and important distinction for philosophers to make. But it’s worth noting that for most of the real world problems that the classical liberals were concerned about, it is a distinction without a difference. ...  
And, in the rest of their reply, they never explain what a special concern means.

As long as Jason's point 1 is interpreted to mean some concern with the treatment of the poor, as I think his point 2 has to permit, the only theories that do not count as theories of social justice are ones that hold that outcomes to the poor don't matter at all and I have a hard time thinking of any examples. Jason may think Ayn Rand qualifies. I will leave it to Objectivists to demonstrate that, in her approach to political philosophy, the lives of poor people mattered along with the lives of other people and leaving each person free to control his own life was the best way of serving man's life qua man.

Part of my criticism of Jason's position centered on a definition of social justice offered on his facebook page, using the term "minimally decent lives." In his response he switches to something closer to the definition I offered from Z&T, claiming that the two are close enough to both describe the same cluster concept.

That raises an obvious question: Does he agree that "minimally decent lives" in one of his definitions is, as I argued, dishonest mush, a term implying an objective standard that does not exist? If he does agree, he ought to take his use of such a term as some evidence of a problem with the concept whose definition he is offering, for reasons along the lines of those offered by George Orwell in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language." If your objective is to clearly express ideas that you are thinking clearly about, there is no need to use terms that are emotive but meaningless.

Jason goes on to respond to the challenge in another recent post, where I suggest that he is more respectful to a bad argument offered by an academic philosopher, specifically John Rawls' argument for his minimax principal, than to bad arguments offered by libertarians. He disagrees with my evaluation of Rawls argument, and writes:

"Rawls’s defense of the Difference Principle is not fully compelling because there are some important objections and questionable assumptions."

"Not fully compelling" implies that it is a pretty good argument with problems.  But the central assumption of the argument is that someone who knows he will live a life in a society but does not know which he will live will choose as if he is certain to live the worst life. No justification is provided for that assumption, on which the entire argument rests. Does Jason think there are pretty good, if not entirely compelling, arguments for it? Would he like to offer some?

If not, I do not see why he regards that argument as more defensible than the (bad) arguments Rand offers for her views. He goes into some detail on what is wrong with Rand's critique of Kant, and very likely he is correct. But his rebuttal of Rand depends on an analysis of exactly what Kant meant in parts of his writing. My rebuttal of Rawls is more nearly on the level of "his argument assumes that 2+2=5."

Aside from giving me an opportunity to get back at Jason for implying that I might be a cartoon, why does all of this matter? My criticism of the concept of social justice arose in the Cato Unbound discussion, in the context of my trying to get the Bleeding Heart Libertarians to give a clear answer to the question of how their view of libertarianism differed from the views of other libertarians, most obviously from my view. Part of the answer seemed to be that they thought libertarians should make more of a point of the fact that a libertarian society would be good for (among others) the poor, but that defines at most a difference in rhetoric not  content, since essentially all libertarians agree with the claim.

The other part was that they wanted to incorporate social justice into libertarian philosophy. So I tried to get them to tell me what "social justice" meant. To put some substance into the concept, one needs more than concern for the poor, one needs a special concern for the poor, so I asked them to explain what that meant, and they didn't. 

Part of what is interesting about Rawls is that he does answer that question. Brennan, Zwolinksi and Tomasi all speak respectfully of him, but none of them is willing to adopt his answer. That leaves their position as the combination of a critique of the hard line natural rights version of libertarianism, a critique I agree with and made in print a very long time ago, with language about caring for the poor whose content they are unwilling or unable to explain, at least to me.

One final digression, having to do with my interest in moral philosophy. What originally intrigued me about both Rand and Rawls was their claim to have solved Hume's is/ought problem, to have offered a rational argument for normative conclusions based on positive facts—I think a stronger claim in Rand's version than in Rawls'. I concluded that both claims were bogus. Not only do both of them present chains of argument with at least one gaping hole, both of them try to paper over the hole with rhetoric—Rand more entertainingly than Rawls. Readers interested in my view of that feature of Rand's work will find a sketch here.


jdgalt said...

I would respond that the "most basic" form of utilitarianism (point 3) is a straw man. Most libertarians (though unfortunately not all) recognize that it's an error to measure the utility of all outcomes by money prices only. If I undertook such an analysis, I would adjust for this by exaggerating the values of items near the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Of course, not everyone will accept that this gives enough consideration to the poor and disadvantaged, but I dismiss those arguments as incoherent if they can't explain why better than Brennan has done so far.

David Friedman said...

I don't think the most basic form of utilitarianism measures utility by money prices--that's the criterion for economic efficiency, which utilitarians, most obviously Marshall, saw as only a proxy for utility.

Ross Levatter said...

David, should "But the central assumption of the argument is that someone who knows he will live a life in a society but does not know which he will live will choose as if he is certain to live the worst life" really read "But the central assumption of the argument is that someone who knows he will live a life in a society but does not know which LIFE he will live will choose as if he is certain to live the worst life"?

RJM said...
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RJM said...

Speaking of the fascination of the is-ought-problem: What do you think of Hoppes A priori of argumentation?

Either someone uses violence or he tries to make true statements.

If you have an interest in making true statement, you ought to obey the NAP.

EH said...

Ive tried my hand at a definition of social justice in the previous post; another one springs to mind.

The difference seems to come down to a stated degree of concern for the poor; a rather slippery concept if there ever was any.

What is the appropriate level of concern for the poor? Viewed from the 'interest of libertarianism', it is that degree of concern that ensures political viability. Mainstream libertarianism evidently falls short here. The '99%' consider themselves to be 'poor', and no doubt they have concern for themselves. That 99% doesn't feel like libertarian ideals align with their interests.

To some degree that may be a matter of different understanding of the facts (an angle you like to emphasize).

But there is also a clear component to it, which comes down to what gets what bit of the pie. Libertarians like to pretend that issue doesn't or shouldn't exist, but such questions are unavoidable. To institute property rights, or not to institute property rights? There will be winners and losers either way.

If an overall more libertarian society could be made appealing to the public at large, including the 'poor' majority, on the basis of comprehensive reform, including a MBI, id argue such an initiative would qualify both as libertarian, and as 'sufficiently concerned with the poor' to be considered 'a theory of social justice', in a meaningful sense of the word.

Tibor said...

EH: I really don't think a good way to judge whether a political philosophy (or generally, any idea) is coherent or not is to see if a certain amout of people like it.

Also to test whether people would like some kind of a society, you first need to have the society in real space. A lot of people liked (and some still do) the idea of communism, yet very few people enjoyed the communist society put in practice...among other things, because reality showed incoherence between theory and practice.

David Friedman said...


For my reaction to Hobbe, see:


EH said...


Indeed, as the example of communism demonstrates, there is a difference between theory and practice; and moreover, people, rationally ignorant as they may be, are not entirely deaf to that either. So I think people like david are justified in working the consequentialist angle. I share davids belief that libertarianism would produce far better results than people tend to give it credit for.

But even if everybody agreed on the facts and their consequences, not everybody, or even a majority of people would necessarily favor a libertarian ideal. Status is relative, not absolute, which is an evolutionarily well ingrained fact. People take relative incomes very seriously; ignore that at your own political peril.

Indeed popularity does not guarantee coherence. But when it comes to political philosophy, it does go the other way around. If it isn't popular, it is not coherent. Politics is about asserting power. For instance, natural-right-ist 'because I say so' argumentation can be a very coherent and persuasive type of argument indeed. But only if you have the power to back it up. Coming from the mouths of libertarians, it is merely pathetic.

That is, a 'political theory' which doesn't actually deal with the matter of its own implementation in a realistic fashion, is theoretical indeed, if not an outright contradiction to the nature of politics. In that sense, my hypothetical BHL who optimizes his concern for the poor according to concerns of political viability, is very coherent indeed. Unlike your garden variety libertarian, he has a strategy, and thus a shot at a political theory which is more than just theory. You may not like the strategy or its motivations, but that is not my concern here; the strategy itself appears entirely well defined to me.

Which is all I am trying to do here; help david in his quest to make this slippery debate a little more firmly grounded. This is but one attempt to provide a way to peg down the meaning of some of the more loosely defined terms that have been thrown around. But I think it fares quite well, both in terms of being well defined, and also likely in doing a fair job of truthfully modeling the actual workings of the BHL mind.

David Friedman said...

Jason has chosen to respond to my post in the comment thread of his blog instead of here, and I have replied to him there. The result of that choice by him is that people here who are not willing to jump back and forth between the two blogs will see my crushing arguments and miss his brilliant rebuttals.

But that's his choice, not mine.

Anonymous said...

On the face of it, people who genuinely care for 'social justice' should be buried under a mound of dead dogs barking agitprop to excuse tax-and-spend tragedy of the commons stuff. Meanwhile genuine libertarians are buried under a mound of plutocrats holding up their end of Belloc's Servile State.


RJM said...

@David, regarding Hoppe:

Thanks for the link. Unfortunately, this is off topic ...

I disagree with you regarding your evaluation of Nr 1. I do agree with your criticism on Nr 2.

I still find the basic idea most interesting. I'd love to make the case for argumentation ethics, if you are interested.

Ben Nader said...

David, you're being kind of obtuse, social justice is just justice within a society. Particular conceptions of social justice holds that that requires a special concern for the poor, e.g. weighting their utility more than 1 in the consequentialist calculus. But while Nozick's conception has no reference to outcomes at all, that doesn't mean it's not about justice.

This is just how political philosophers use the term when talking about theories of justice.

Anonymous said...

David what do you think about misessian utilitarism?


Tibor said...

EH: I don't know, it seems to me you are mixing things. Coherency or consistency of an idea has nothing to do with its popularity. It may be argued that a incoherent or inconsistent argument will suffer in terms of popularity, but even that doesn't seem likely to me based on my real world experience.

What you talk about is rather feasibility of the ideas, not their coherence. If you come up with something that is likeable - as an abstract idea and an argument - to many people, your chances of actually turning it into reality is higher that otherwise. But that has no direct relationship with coherence. It is a question of practice: "how to make it happen? how to persuade people?" And even though those questions are important, they have nothing to do with the theory...except that some people might be turned off by inconsistencies in a theory.

Also, by your definition (if I understand you right), communism is very consistent or at least was (which is also a very strange feature of your definition of consistency - it can change in time), since it managed to attract a lot of people - as an idea - and therefore could be put in practice.

As far as relative status goes, you are right that people care about that, but I don't think they value it as much as you think, or at least not many of them. It is true that Caesar said "It is better to be the first in the last village than second in Rome," but I think for most of the people it goes the other way around - that they would prefer being relatively poor in a rich society, to being relatively rich in a poor society (so in absolute terms they would be richer in the first one).

Actually I remmember one Jonathan Haidt's online questionaire that was aimed to find out how people of different political opinions vary in terms of values. And a part of it consisted of questions such as "would you prefer to be absolutely better in a world where almost everyone else is even better than you, or absolutely worse in a world where others tend to be even worse" (in various aspects such as intelligence, physical beauty, wealth,...). I was surprised that a strong majority of those who answered (a few thousand people who labeled themselves as "conservative", "liberal" or "libertarian") was in favour of absolute improvement even though it meant relative decline. Of course, it was only a questionaire, so it may in reality be the other way around, but still it was a bit of a surprise for me.

Glen Whitman said...

Maybe the "special concern for the poor" could be cast as a version of utilitarianism with unequal weights. Under standard utilitarianism, everyone's weight in a society of N people would be 1/N. But instead, we could assign weights based on a person's percentile rank p (expressed as a decimal). Here's an example:

w = (1/N)*(1.5 - p)

This would give someone at the 50th percentile a weight of 1/N, just like under standard utilitarianism. Someone at the 1st percentile would get a weight of 1.49*(1/N), and someone at the 99th percentile would get a weight of 0.51*(1/N).

I'm not advocating this system. But it would constitute a way of giving more consideration to the worst-off without going to Rawls's absurd minimax conclusion, which gives 100% weight to worst-off.

Unknown said...
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Ben45 said...

Besides the non-aggression principle one of the tenets libertarians should follow is that the ends don't justify the means. It is not clear to me what means the BHL supporters are willing to use to improve "social justice". If they will use only voluntary means to promote social justice (whatever it is) then maybe it is fair for them to include libertarian as part of their name. But if social justice is justification for use of coercion or state power then they should come up with a different name for their philosophy.

Ben45 said...
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Ayrton P said...

Dr. Friedman, in my edition of Machinery of Freedom (life-changing book, by the way) you close with an essay on G K Chesterton in which you state that his writings had convinced you that, ''statements about right and wrong are true or false in essentially the same way as statements about physical reality.'' Due to space constraints, you didn't defend that position in the essay, and I have been unable to find any elaboration on your position...but since I have found you to be a remarkably thoughtful thinker with compelling reasons for your views I was hoping you could tell us if that's still your position and why. There is a lot of talk here about how not to root ethics (i.e. Rawls, Rand, and Hoppe), and it sometimes depresses me...is there any hope for a rational code of ethics?

David Friedman said...


That comment was in the chapter on Chesterton, but it was an explanation of one reason I took him seriously, not an explanation of how I reached the conclusion I described.

The source of that was losing an argument with Isaiah Berlin when I was an undergraduate.

You can find one discussion of the issue at:


and a brief discussion of a problem with my position at:


You might also want to read Michael Huemer's book, mentioned in the post. His position is close to mine, but he is more confident than I am that it is right.

David Friedman said...


You may or may not be interested in my novel Salamander, available as a Kindle from Amazon. One of the implicit themes, one that I didn't plan but that showed up anyway, is the issue of ends justifying the means. I think the claim that they never do is too strong, but the belief that they do can have undesirable consequences.

Ben45 said...

Thanks for the reading suggestion.

The ends don't justify the means for public policy issues because the purported "ends" are only conjecture. As Hayek explains, it is "Fatal Conceit" to assume we can predict the future in a complex system.

Tibor said...

Ben45: Yes, but that is a special case. Let's say you have to kill one innocent person to save 2 other innocent people. Would you do it? I wouldn't. What if you had to kill one to save 5 million people or 5 billion people? And if you knew there was simply no other way. Or if you simply had to steal something from that person (as he would not give it willingly, not even to save those 5 billion people). The means (stealing) are bad. But it would be hard to find anyone (save for hardcore zealous natural rights libertarians) who would say the ends don't justify the means in this case.

Ben45 said...

Thanks for the feedback, but lets not make up a hypothetical situation. Pick any historic event when killing 1 innocent person saved lots of people?

In such a situation would you
a priori be certain that killing or stealing would save lots of other people?

Market situations where people plan ahead or have time to make adjustments are the scenarios I am interested in, not one-off special circumstances. In ordinary situations do the ends ever justify the means? The BHL's are not talking about special situations, they are talking about how institutions may unfairly affect people, and in those circumstance it is not clear if they are willing to use force to make the world behave the way they want it to.

Anonymous said...

A man who stole a nickel to save 6 billion people should be paraded through the streets and greeted as a hero and then led to a public platform to meet and shake the hand of the president/queen and then he should have his hand cut off for being a thief.

I'm a natural rights zealot.

Ben45 said...

@Anonymous - What does being a natural rights zealot have to do with your statement? How would cutting off a hand be restitution for stealing a nickel? The victim would be made whole by receiving a nickel plus court costs from the aggressor. Or maybe two nickels plus court costs depending on whose concept of restitution becomes the custom.

Tibor said...

Ben45, Anonymous:

In both cases, the incentive of that person to save those 6 million (presumably to him unrelated) people is reduced. Sharply in the case of cutting his hand off. Not very much in the case of paying 2 nickels.


Yes, most situations fortunatelly have good solutions that do not require means which need to be justified. But if it is remotely possible that a situation occurs which doesn't have a neat solution like that, you can't say that ends never can justify the means.

I think a less dramatic version of my previous example - shoving a person off the street in order to save him from being hit by a car - is very likely (happened to me once...with a tram though, so I wouldn't be writing this had that person who did that to me believed that ends cannot justify the means ever). It is not nice to do that to someone for no reason. But if the result is saving him from being severely hurt or killed by a car, I'd say it is more than justified.

LCH said...

I don't believe Rawls ever claimed to solve the is/ought problem. I've read most everything he wrote, much of it several times, and I have no recollection of this. If you're referring merely to his contractualism--his justifying moral principles by appeal to hypothetical agreement--I would point out that Rawls is quite explicit that his original position etc is a moral conception through and through. It's not meant to be a description of an empirical situation that yields moral conclusions. Indeed agreement is arguably itself a moral notion.

In _Theory of Justice_ he does say something to the effect that the justice problem could be conceived as a part of the theory of rational choice, but he does publicly and repeatedly retracts that claim later on. And anyway I don't see that claim, wrong as it may have been, as meaning that he took himself to have derived an ought from an is.

This is worth bringing up only because you have a rather persistent habit of accusing Rawls of making terrible arguments ("2+2=5"), despite the fact that you openly admit that you haven't read him in years and it's clear to me at least that you don't remember much of it at all. It doesn't make you look smart.

David Friedman said...


You may be correct--that's part of the reason I said Rand made a stronger claim than Rawls. But having found a part of Rawls' argument that seemed to me to make no sense, and observing him attempting to cover it with what looked to me like elaborate hand waving, I didn't feel inclined to spend much more time on his work.

LCH said...

That is fine. I don't expect you to like Rawls or even to read him. You're well within your epistemic rights to ignore him altogether. I'm just speaking up for the principle that one shouldn't attribute to others views they don't hold, or criticize others without first understanding their views. If I were looking for an excuse to dismiss all of your work on the basis of a single nonsensical claim (as you apparently were when you read Rawls), I would have just found it.

David Friedman said...

"and then he should have his hand cut off for being a thief."

Your reference is presumably to fiqh, Islamic law. Under that legal system there are a number of requirements the offense must meet in order to qualify for that punishment, one of which is a minimum amount stolen. I don't think a nickle would qualify.