Dan Moller’s Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism is one of my favorite books on libertarian philosophy. In it, he discusses one idea that I think is underrated, and deserves to be highlighted. The idea is what he calls residual obligations

First, Moller’s approach to libertarianism is not based on a hardline approach like many associate with Rand or Rothbard. Moller does not think in terms of exceptionless rules, or rights that are inviolable in all circumstances. He acknowledges that sometimes, rights violations can be justified. Suppose I find myself in the following scenario: 

I am hiking on a mountain pass and have become trapped in a massive snowstorm. My life is in peril if I cannot find shelter and food. Luckily, I stumble across an unoccupied hunting cabin. The cabin is clearly marked with “Keep Out” and “Private Property” signs. However, I can easily break into the cabin and take shelter against the storm until it has passed, saving my life at the cost of causing some property damage to someone else.

People with an absolutist view of rights might argue that I’m morally obligated to stay outside and freeze to death. Common sense morality, however, says this is a case where it’s permissible to violate someone’s property rights. However, Moller points out what’s often overlooked is that a rights violation being justified isn’t the end of the moral analysis. Too many people speak as if overriding a right necessarily means the same things as erasing the right altogether. But this is a mistake. As Moller puts it, an overridden right is not a deactivated right. A justified rights violation is still a rights violation. The reasons that exist to avoid harming someone, though overridden, have not ceased to exist, and harm was still caused to someone who did not deserve it. 

As a result, Moller says, “the overridden reason to avoid harming you” still being in effect produces “residual obligations for me.” If you see that I’ve broken your cabin window and taken some of the supplies you kept stored in there, would be wrong of me to merely shrug and say “well, the emergency situation I was in overruled your property rights, so unfortunately for you, this is all your problem.” Instead, I now have some residual obligations to you. Moller suggests these obligations include restitution – if I caused $300 worth of damage to your cabin in order to break in, I should repay you for the damage. There is a further obligation of compensation to the extent that you are otherwise harmed by my actions, and I should take efforts to compensate you for those harms. I should express sympathy – even though my action may have been justified, it was still regrettable, and it still caused harm to you, and for me to treat that as a matter of indifference would be wrong. And there is an obligation of responsibility which is “not just backward looking, but forward-looking.” 

The forward-looking nature of responsibility is of particular interest. For example, if the mountain pass in the above thought experiment was widely known to be a hazardous place to hike, and I also knew that there was a major snowstorm coming in, and could have easily anticipated that taking a hike that day could place me in a situation where I might need to break into someone else’s cabin in order to survive, that gives me a strong obligation to avoid putting myself in that scenario in the first place. As Moller puts it, “If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions of possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.”

I think this is basically right. If I had been the hypothetical hiker above and was later trying to take moral inventory of my life, I wouldn’t find myself thinking “If only I had been a better, more moral person, I’d actually be dead already. I’d have had the decency to do the morally correct thing, and I’d have frozen to death outside that cabin years ago.” But if I failed to live up to my residual obligations, and never attempted to make things up to the cabin owner, I would feel like I had done something wrong to that extent. As I’ve written before, I don’t want to be the kind of person who feels comfortable with making others bear the costs of my choices, or of my misfortunes. As Moller phrased it, “the core impulse isn’t outrage about being asked to give, it is in the first instance a bewilderment at the suggestion that we are entitled to demand.” And Moller goes on to argue, persuasively in my view, that “if we recognize even modest strictures on making others worse off to improve our lot” then “we quickly run into a form of libertarianism.” 

A simple question we should all ask ourselves about any belief we hold is “If I was wrong about this, how would I know it? What would it actually take to convince me that I’m mistaken?” If you can’t answer that question, that should be a big red flag. This is hardly an original observation on my part, of course. Eliezer Yudkowsky, for example has written that “a belief is only really worthwhile if you could, in principle, be persuaded to believe otherwise. If your retina ended up in the same state regardless of what light entered it, you would be blind.” Similarly, if your mind ends up in the same state regardless of the evidence or arguments you encounter, then intellectually you have been “blinded as effectively as by poking out your eyeballs.” To illustrate the point, Yudkowsky goes on to say this holds true even for things as basic as 2+2 = 4, and that he finds “it quite easy to imagine a situation which would convince me that 2 + 2 = 3.”

So, what would it take to convince me I was wrong about the moral argument for libertarianism? Well, as mentioned, I don’t think it’s right of me to demand and compel other people to carry the costs of my actions or my misfortunes. If someone could provide me with a convincing argument that I would become a better, more moral person if I did adopt such a belief and began to act in accordance with it, that would in turn convince me I was wrong about the moral argument for libertarianism.

What about you, EconLog readers? What’s a core belief you hold, and what would it take to convince you that you were mistaken about it?