"History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind." ~ Edward Gibbon
The Limits of Philosophy
Column by Paul Bonneau.
Exclusive to STR
In an earlier article, I wrote to counter the notion of Matt Zwolinski that libertarians ought to dispense with the Non-Aggression Principle. I have since found another article countering Zwolinski by Jason Kuznicki coming from a different direction, as well as another supporting Zwolinski by Julian Sanchez. Not only do I not find Zwolinski convincing, as I mentioned before, but I also think both Kuznicki and Sanchez have got on the wrong track.
Since we’re on the subject, let’s talk physics. To model how a billiard ball rolls on a table, one makes simplifying assumptions—the table is a perfectly flat plane, the ball is a perfect sphere, the mass is distributed equally, and the like. One does these things not because the simplified model is perfectly true to life, but for three related reasons: (1) the model is often close enough; (2) the math is vastly easier; and (3) you can use it to say things that are more or less true about billiard balls anywhere: here, in Spokane, and—with only minor adjustments—on Mars.
Moral and political philosophy should be like that. They should make simplifying assumptions. They must, if they are to do anything more than reference isolated cases without any extensive explanatory power. And the ability to extend to additional cases is the very reason we do philosophy, at least as a practical matter.
This is what can be called “physics envy” among the philosophers. How wonderful to find universal rules; why can’t philosophy be the same?
There is a small problem with this, though. Physics and the other hard sciences are concerned with describing what is. There is no “ought” in physics. Now, while I know a thing or two about physics, I am far from an expert in philosophy; but at least in the area of ethics and political philosophy, it is almost all about oughts, if I’m not mistaken.
A further problem is that humans are not machines, not perfectly logical and consistent. They are not like identical electrons, whose behavior in an electric field can be described.
Given these two problems, maybe philosophers ought to set their sights a little lower. Rather than attempting to emulate physics, it would seem to make more sense to work with the human material they have available to them. Maybe general guides to conduct, rather than universal rules derived from the very existence of matter and energy, is as good as it gets with philosophy; and it serves no purpose to bring physics into the matter. Kuznicki came at it from the wrong direction.
Sanchez, on the other hand - while taking no issue with physics envy - writes,
If the NAP were truly a universal, exceptionless master principle—if the apparent counterexamples were either bullets we could bite or cases where the principle would yield the right answer after all once properly understood—then we could employ it directly even at the highest theoretical level. But if, as Jason seems to concede, we are allowing that the exceptions are really exceptions, then we are implicitly relying on some other higher-level principles—respect for autonomy or hedonic utility or Kantian universalization or contractualist agreement—to limn the boundaries.
That doesn’t follow. There isn’t necessarily some higher principle that takes over from NAP, as relativity more accurately replaced classical mechanics. Instead, we are at a place where there are no principles at all. You cannot look at these exceptions to NAP and have what happens in them reflect back on the entire basis where NAP does satisfactorily apply.
These are the “lifeboat arguments” - the sorts of things that philosophers like to play with: At what point does it become acceptable to throw someone out of a lifeboat? The example presented here (via Rothbard) is of a parent starving his child, and whether it is a violation of NAP to trespass on the parent’s land to feed the kid. Yes, believe it or not, the idea here is that whatever may be discovered in the proper conduct of this contrived case, should be applied back to all those other cases where NAP seemed to make sense. Lifeboats overthrow NAP. We can aggress after all! Whee!
No doubt the ruling class loves philosophy.
In reality, in one lifeboat rowing away from the sinking Titanic, a person may be ejected. In another nearby lifeboat, in similar straits, they may refrain from ejecting a person. Neither case affects the general reality. Neither case even matters, although philosophers may argue they do. Imagine the ejectors are later arrested and brought to trial, and convicted by 12 jurors who did not have to sit in that sinking lifeboat. They go to jail for 20 years. What does this outcome say to us? How does that matter at all? The jails are chock full of people who shouldn’t be there. It will affect nothing in the future. It has no bearing on whether A should steal from B in the name of the common good, or of anything else.
Sanchez does have a stronger point in the following text:
You can’t resolve a philosophical debate between a classical liberal and a socialist by appealing to the NAP, because each can claim their view is consistent with that principle given their theories of property: The state is not “aggressing” on an individual “property owner” if in fact The People ultimately own (or have some kind of share right in) all property, given the normatively loaded way “aggression” is used here. The appeal of the NAP lies in its apparent simplicity and intuitive plausibility (tautologies tend to be intuitively plausible), but it’s typically deployed in a way that amounts to a kind of shell game: I argue that socialism must be rejected on the grounds that it violates this one simple moral principle, and hope my interlocutor doesn’t notice that I’ve essentially begged the question by baking a theory of strong property rights incompatible with socialism into my conception of “aggression,” when of course libertarian property rights are ultimately backed by the threat of (individual or state) violence as well.
It’s true that NAP may be useless in resolving a debate with a socialist, but so is everything else. There is no higher principle that will solve this dilemma. Libertarian property rights may well be backed by violence - defensive violence at any rate. Oh, well! The thing to do, if violence is to be avoided, is to embrace Panarchy. Let socialists be socialists, let libertarians be libertarians. There is no need for them to try to convince each other which side is correct. A good thing too, because there is no highest principle that would be able to do it.
I’m not saying that political philosophy never has any effect; Marx certainly had an effect. It’s just that I doubt these corner cases say much that matters. Political philosophy is not physics. Anyway, we don’t have to look at these absurdly contrived situations to figure out rules of conduct. How many people end up in overloaded lifeboats? How many people starve their children? Let’s look instead at what happens every day. Every day governments, using a political philosophy approved by academics, kill hundreds, or thousands of people. Every day governments cage other thousands. Every day governments rape and torture. Every day governments do things that virtually nobody would excuse if an individual did it.
NAP is just fine and healthy despite the fact it may cause philosophers heartburn. I’d rather have the average Joe on the street following it consistently than to have the unanimous support of every philosopher in the world. At best, philosophy and philosophers are pretty irrelevant to what goes on in this world. At worst, they are an apologia for tyranny.