Bill Dickens vs. Me on Huemer
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve been having an extended Facebook argument with Bill Dickens about Mike Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority. To be fair, Bill is only responding to Huemer’s piece on Cato Unbound, not the actual book, which he has not read. Our argument so far, reprinted with Bill’s permission:
am not at all impressed. He buys the Friedman vision of private
competing security companies and argues that they would eschew violence
because it is too costly. Nonsense. The exact same argument can be made
about governments — all the more so of autocratic governments which
might reasonably be viewed as operating to maximize the wealth of their
primary constituency — and that has worked well hasn’t it?
for the rationale for the state, again I’m unimpressed. He assumes that
individuals have “rights” and then asks why the state can take them
away. One could reverse the argument just as easily. Why shouldn’t a
system that provides a better outcome for most people be preferred over
one that does not? Rights are simply part of the package that the
preferable system allows for. I happen to like systems that decide their
nature more or less democratically and have no trouble with the vast
majority of the authority states reserve for themselves. Your mileage
may vary, but don’t try to convince me with arguments about “rights.”
The consequences of the system matter first and foremost.
– I wouldn’t expect you to find Huemer’s defense of the practicality of
anarchism persuasive (though he does anticipate your complaints).
Indeed, for the sake of argument I’d be happy to agree with your first
your second paragraph that I’d like to persuade you to rethink. You
say that “consequences of the system matter first and foremost.” But in
our previous discussions, you’ve often backed away from
case: Unless I deeply misunderstand you, you think it would be wrong
for five people who need organs to murder a healthy stranger to save
themselves. And I think you’d still say it was wrong if the six of you
voted and you lost 5:1.
consider something less hypothetical: I’ve gathered that you are
pro-choice. On consequentialist grounds, this is very hard to defend:
You’re weighing nine months of unwanted pregnancy against a person’s
life. If you invoke a woman’s “right to her own body,” or anything
along those lines, you’re not being a consequentialist anymore.
question: Why do you claim to be a consequentialist, then make a bunch
of ad hoc exceptions, instead of fixing your overall moral theory to fit
what you actually think??? This is just what Huemer’s book tries to
do. And as Perry says, Huemer starts with simple moral intuitions you
probably already hold, not anything controversial like absolute rights
are right that in the past I have been unwilling to embrace some of
the consequences of consequentialist thought, but I’m moving more in
that direction rather than towards embracing rights. So for your two
examples, if there are five people alone on a desert island with a
surgeon and an operating room and four of them decide to take the organs
of the fifth as the only way that two of them can live I’m down with
that. On abortion I don’t believe that someone counts fully in the moral
calculus until they are a fully formed human. Morality is about how we
interact with each other. Whether more or fewer people is a good thing
is something I don’t have any moral intuition about and I’m not
persuaded by any of the arguments I’ve heard one way or the other.
the argument is based on moral intuitions then it seems even less
coherent. I have not read the book yet (@Perry you are right about
that), but tell me how does he convince you that moral intuitions about
individual rights trump intuitions about collective good?
– If you want me to bring out the big guns, let me point out that if
consequentialism is true, you should give away the vast majority of your
wealth to absolutely poor people forthwith. And also start working far
more hours to increase your donations. Are you evil for failing to do
common reply is that consequentialism is a social ethic, not a personal
ethic. But it’s hard to make sense of that. If no particular person
is morally obliged to maximize the goodness of consequences, the social
ethic is empty.
Two methodological points intended to raise the level of future discussion:
Saying “Anyone can play this game” is to philosophy as saying “You can
prove anything with statistics” is to economics. Both moral
hypotheticals and data analysis are fallible and subject to abuse. But
they’re also our only path to truth in their respective domains. (BTW,
Bill, you’re the last person to ever hear me say “You can prove anything
with statistics.” You pointed out how silly it was and I stopped doing
Saying, “I’m perfectly happy with X” or “I happen to like system X” is
unhelpful in a moral argument. One major point of moral argument is to
jolt people out of complacent satisfaction with morally unjustified
Yup, that is the big gun. I don’t run from it. As I said I’m tending
more towards consequentialist positions. I didn’ that I have embraced
every single conclusion. I’ll admit I’m still inconsistent on that one.
Bill: 1. I don’t think that I was doing what you think I was doing. I wasn’t objecting to the use of hypotheticals, I was objecting
to the whole method of taking intuitions formed in one context into
another in a way that tends to make people see things from a libertarian
perspective. My point wasn’t that Huemer shouldn’t use hypotheticals
but that moving moral intuitions out of context is a poor way to make a
case when the same method can be used in reverse. The method impresses
me as a cheap parlor trick rather than a serious argument. Something
that only someone who didn’t reflect for a minute would fall for. I’m
surprised (and am somewhat skeptical of my own judgement) since you take
it so seriously. Maybe Huemer is more even handed in his book, but in
the article he isn’t acknowledging that he is stuffing the rabbit into
the hat before he pulls it out. I would be much more impressed with an
evenhanded exploration of the method that points out what it is doing
and tries to see whether there are any conclusions that are robust to
circumstances. Or whether there were particularly good situations for
thinking about moral questions. That would be interesting.
I don’t see where I said I was perfectly happy with a system except in
response to Zac saying that I had to prove something to him. In general,
my reaction to people trying to shift the burden of proof to me to
defend the status quo is to do that. There are lots of reasons to give
the status quo the benefit of the doubt. I acknowledge that when I’m
arguing against it.
respect to the big gun, Even though I admit to being an inconsistent
consequentialist, that is only because I don’t have the time right now
to think through a moral intuition I have about the appropriateness of
saying that consequentialist thought should drive social action, but
that there are limits of its applicability to individuals. Till I do
that I have to admit that my not giving away everything I own up to the
point where I’m as poor as the poorest may well be immoral.
– My friend, we’ve argued about the implausible implications of
consequentialism for two decades now. When I bring out the big guns,
you seem to concede their force but plead lack of time to duly ponder
them. Given the centrality of the issue, though,
shouldn’t you *make* time to duly ponder them? After all, virtually
all of your policy views seem to hinge on this issue.
the book, Huemer is indeed very even-handed. As I think I told you,
it’s the *only* book about libertarian political philosophy I am proud
to recommend to you. However, doing what you call “moving moral
intuitions out of context” is much more than a parlor trick. It’s one
of the best ways of counter-acting status quo bias and myside bias.
having a moral argument with a typical Israeli and a typical
Palestinian. If you want a remotely constructive conversation, you’d
have to get them to discuss analogous situations with unfamiliar or
neutral team names attached.
The same goes for moral arguments about virtually any controversial political issue.