What's So Special About Huemer's New Book?
By Bryan Caplan
In the comments, Mark V. Anderson asks:
I would like to know why you think this book is so extra-special. I
read the first chapter for which you provided the link. It was well
written, but I saw nothing there that I haven’t read a hundred times. I am a consequentialist libertarian myself, and I find the radical
approach very unconvincing, especially when one considers some of the
potential consequences when one takes such an absolutist view against
I can see how you might think Huemer is merely hewing to a standard
dogmatic natural rights position, which has indeed been done a hundred
times. But he’s not. He starts from much weaker premises, along the
lines of “You shouldn’t coerce other people without a good reason.” And a prime example of “good reason,” for Huemer, is “There would be very bad consequences of not coercing.” He never claims that consequences don’t matter. His reply to the consequentialist defense of government is:
(a) The defense only implies the rightness of government coercion when the consequences of not coercing are in fact very bad.
(b) Almost everyone sees that many, if not most, laws don’t actually prevent very bad consequences.
(c) The good consequences of government coercion in the remaining, controversial cases are greatly overrated.
One big problem with libertarian consequentialism is that it focuses almost exclusively on (c). Huemer’s insight is that you can get very far with (a) + (b) alone.
And if I am not convinced, someone who is very skeptical of
90% of the acts of government, all the more reason that your average
statist (a majority of the citizenry) will reject these ideas out of
Empirically, you’re right. Most people can’t be persuaded. I admire Huemer’s book because would change the minds of reasonable, fair-minded people on many moderate points – and at least pique their curiousity about his more radical positions.
I presume you have read the whole book. Can you give us some more
clues as to what Huemer says that is different from previous writers?
You presume correctly. What’s great about the book is that he grants the plausibility of many seemingly statist intuitions, avoids absurd absolutism and obscurantism, and still reaches strong libertarian conclusions. I was repeatedly surprised by how far he gets without assuming anything controversial.
have no interest in reading it if he doesn’t have fresh ideas, even if
it is very well written.
Consequentialists will be tempted to dismiss it as yet another dogmatic natural rights book. Natural rights theorists will be tempted to dismiss it as confused consequentialism. But both dismissals are wrong. Huemer is doing something novel: Starting with pluralist common-sense morality and ending with radical libertarianism.
And I don’t see how it could have any affect
on the population at large in that case.
I doubt one philosopher can have much effect on the population at large no matter how fresh his ideas are. What a philosopher can do is bend over backwards to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with him. Which is precisely what Huemer does.
Update: In response to M.R. Orlowski, there’s still no official publication date. I’m guessing early 2013.