The Ethics of Human Rights (70): A Human Right to Non-Existence?

Can people have a human right not to exist? This potential right has to be distinguished from the right to die or the right to end your life. In fact, what I’m talking about here is a right not to be born. Can a potential or prospective person have a right that forces her potential parents not to act in such a way that she comes into existence?

It’s common to hear people claim that, in some circumstances, it’s in a person’s interest for her parents to not act in such a way that leads to her conception and birth. And when there’s an interest there’s possibly a right as well. The specific circumstances people often refer to are, for example, the likelihood of genetic defects in the parents that would lead to a life of suffering for the potential child. Indeed, it’s uncontroversial that we can cause harm to a child by bringing about her existence, and when there is harm, there’s often also a right to be protected against such harm.

Less common these days is for people to argue that those who are “burdened” in non-genetic ways – such as the poor – should also not procreate owing to the risk that their children would find themselves leading similarly dismal lives.

So, if prospective parents are in a position to know or to be told that their potential children will lead a life not worth living because of genetic reasons, should they respect the so-called right to non-existence of these potential children? This right – if it exists – imposes a duty on prospective parents not to beget miserable children.

(A short parenthesis: suppose there is such a right not to exist, does that right not imply the existence of the “mirror-right”, namely a right of prospective children to exist when their lives will be very rewarding? In other words, do people have a duty to procreate in some circumstances? Most human rights imply their mirror-right: the right to free association implies the right to leave associations or to not associate at all; the right to free speech implies the right to remain silent; freedom of religion implies freedom from religion etc.

However, the presence of a mirror-right doesn’t always seem to be a necessary corollary of a right. The right to a free trial or the right to be free from discrimination don’t seem to imply any mirror-rights. If we assume, temporarily, that there is a right not to exist, we don’t need to assume that the mirror-right should also exist, if only because there are some serious problems with the possible right to exist, as I’ve argued elsewhere).

Back to the main point of the argument. If you want to defend the right to non-existence you have to distinguish between two cases:

  1. a right to non-existence belonging to a possible future child, and
  2. a right to non-existence belonging to a future child.

Case 1 is a right of potential children before conception, and this right would – if we agree that it exists – justify (forced) sterilization and such. Which is already one indication that such a right does not or should not exist. Case 2 is a right of a fetus not to be born, and is a right that would justify some types of abortion.

If we accept the right to non-existence in case 1, we won’t impose harm on children – because they never leave the stage of potential being – but we may impose harm on parents’ procreation rights, privacy rights, physical integrity rights etc. If we accept the right in case 2, we will impose harm on parents if we have to force them to have an abortion in order to protect the fetus’ right to non-existence.

In either case, however, we are dealing with “people” who can’t possibly claim their right to non-existence for themselves, either because they don’t (yet) exist, or because they exist in a form in which they can claim rights. Hence, when we act to realize the right to non-existence, we always act on behalf of the wellbeing of others, potential others even. Given the many problems linked to paternalism, the burden of proof must be very high before we engage in such actions. For instance, it should be abundantly clear that “a life of unbearable suffering” will indeed be unbearable: a life of poverty and illiteracy would still be valuable enough and would not trigger the right to non-existence of the potential children of the poor and illiterate. Hence it would also fail to trigger paternalistic actions such as forced sterilization or forced abortion. On the other hand, a life of constant physical pain brought about by genetic facts could perhaps be of sufficiently low value to trigger the right and the corresponding paternalistic actions, although I personally find it repugnant to consider forced abortion or forced sterilization.

Also, the fact that the bearers of the right in question can’t possibly claim it themselves – either because they’re still a fetus or because they are as yet potential human beings (some, by the way, would claim that a fetus is also no more than a potential human being) – could indicate that it’s impossible to talk about a right in this case. However, some children and comatose patients also can’t claim their rights, but that’s no reason to state that they don’t have any. Maybe it would be better to frame the issue, not in terms of rights, but in terms of the duties that parents have when considering a decision to procreate. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect my promises given to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.

The Causes of Poverty (70): Rich People Not Giving Enough Money to Poor People, Ctd.

In a previous post I looked at some of the reasons why rich people don’t give more money to poor people, and I assumed that the stories people tell themselves have a lot to do with it. Here’s a bit more about this.

The distant poor are the first to be removed from our stories. Archaic and morally dubious notions such as the “national family”, national solidarity etc. are advanced to justify this move. These notions may be linked to certain pragmatic arguments justifying the focus on the poor within our borders: poverty alleviation requires redistribution, redistribution requires a welfare state – adequate taxation and a strong government able to enforce redistributive programs – and there’s no such state on the global level. The merits of this argument are dubious: there are many ways to combat poverty beyond the national welfare state – international development aid, charity, an open borders policy etc.

Another pragmatic argument in favor of focussing on the poor in our own countries goes like this: it’s better for people to help others who are close by, because closeness comes with knowledge about the needs of those who should be helped and about the best ways of helping them. There are also problems with this argument: our poor compatriots are probably as distant to us as the poor in Africa; those who are close to the distant poor are probably poor as well and therefore unable to help – or at least will find it much harder to help compared to people in the rich parts of the world whose marginal utility of the next dollar of income is only a tiny fraction of the utility that the same dollar would provide to the distant poor.

Whatever the merits of these arguments, they help to explain why the distant poor are often removed from sight. The next step is to remove some of the non-distant poor as well. We don’t want to encourage begging, and that’s what we do when we give money to beggars. We want to make work more attractive than begging, and hence we shouldn’t give to beggars. We should even criminalize begging so as to encourage beggars to go find a job. That’s good for the beggars – at least in the long run – and for the rest of us as well because beggars may be a nuisance. Giving doesn’t just encourage begging and unemployment; it robs people of their agency, their self-reliance and their sense of responsibility. It traps them in dependence, and most of the time it encourages bad habits. How many beggars use their earnings to fuel their alcohol addiction? Never mind that alcohol may be the only thing that gives them some pleasure in life and that allows them to forget their misery, if only temporarily. And never mind that the same kind of paternalism is generally viewed as offensive when targeted at the non-poor.

But what about selection biases? Aren’t we more likely to give to some beggars and not to others? The old Mother Theresa like woman with the baby in her lap? The cripple showing off his amputated limbs? The clever beggar who has monopolized the busy intersection and who threatens competitors with violence? All in all, we’ll probably give to those who already get the most, and hence we don’t help the most needy. However, giving can take different forms, and handouts to beggars are just one option. If you’re worried about people abusing cash handouts, why not give them access to healthcare or food? If you’re worried about selection effects, why not make sure that everyone gets an equal share? And if you’re worried about dependency, why not give conditional aid: people only get cash or services when they prove that they are looking for a job, when their children attend school etc.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (64): Value Pluralism Supports Human Rights

The justification of human rights – the quest for reasons why they are important and why we need them – is probably the most important topic of this blog (some previous posts are here, here, here, here and here). One element of justification is their compatibility with an important tenet of moral theory, namely value pluralism. Value pluralism is, in my opinion, a principle of morality that comes very close to being a “moral fact“.

In short, the principle says the following. There are many different moral values – or different moral “goods” if you want – such as happiness, liberty, equality, loyalty etc. Those values differ qualitatively from each other and don’t seem to be reducible to one super value. And neither is there a clear ranking of importance so that conflicts between values can be easily decided. Different values can’t be compared to each other. Friendship is not clearly more important or a higher value than loyalty; freedom is not prior to equality; being happy is not better than developing your capacities etc. When two values seem to be incompatible, it’s hardly ever certain which of the two should be favored. And neither is it easy to say that a decrease of x in value v is acceptable if it results in an increase of x or y in value w; it’s often even impossible to determine the x and y in this equation because values are quantitatively and not just qualitatively incomparable. An increase of x in friendship is not comparable to an increase of x in loyalty. What does an increase of x in friendship even mean? Furthermore, there are problems in cases that don’t involve incompatible values: in general, is it better to strive towards increases in value v rather than increases in value w? For example, some say a society and a government should promote equality as the prime value; others prefer to maximize liberty. It’s difficult if not impossible to decide if either of these goals is the most important.

And yet, even if value pluralism is true and moral theory can’t therefore offer guidance in cases of incompatible values or in the choice of the single value to pursue in life, people have to solve conflicts between values on an almost daily basis, and they have to decide which value or values should guide their lives. If moral theory is useless in those everyday decisions, then it’s better to let people decide for themselves about what is good and right. People should be left free to live their own lives according to the guiding values they choose independently, and they should be allowed to decide conflicts between values according to their own conscience. If value pluralism is true, then there is no single way of life that is the highest and the best for all, and then it’s also true that people should be given the freedom to decide for themselves.

This is where human rights enter the scene. Human rights support this freedom in two ways, a direct and an indirect way. They allow people to choose a type of good life independently from the pressures of government or society: minority religions are free, people are free to associate, expression is free, they can use their property the way they like etc. In addition, there’s is nothing in the system of human rights that prohibits self-chosen and self-regarding value decisions, as long as the rights of others aren’t harmed (for example, drug use that doesn’t harm others cannot be prohibited on the basis of human rights).

Indirectly, human rights oppose authoritarian governments which favor and enforce one value or one way of life as the only desirable way of life: communist societies that promote equality at the expense of all other values, Catholic dictatorships that prohibit other religions, Muslim theocracies etc. If value pluralism is true, then there is no basis for coercive policies intended to systematically favor one value or one way of life. (Of course, in specific cases of incompatible values, it may be necessary for coercive government intervention in favor of one value or the other, especially when government inaction would cause more overall harm to certain values than government action; but that is the exception to the general rule that people should be free to solve those issues themselves – a rule that is based on morality’s inability to find good general reasons to favor one value over another. An example of such an action would be a government prohibition on religious child sacrifice).

One problem with the line of reasoning that I set out here is that the opposite can also be true: value pluralism can support authoritarian government. Not the type of authoritarian government that is paternalistic and that favors the realization of one value above all others, but the type that presents itself as a bulwark against anarchy, instability and factionalization. Governments which take the latter approach start with the presumed fragility of the bonds of community. These bonds, it is said, can only be maintained if society is inspired by a single purpose and a single good. The freedom to let people decide for themselves what type of life they want to pursue can undo the necessary sense of community because it erodes the single purpose, but also because groups of people will turn away from each other in disgust over the other groups’ lifestyles. Conflict and a lack of solidarity will destroy society. One purpose should therefore be enforced, not because this purpose is generally superior to all others, but because otherwise society will fall apart. I’ve argued here against this justification of authoritarianism. The crux of my argument is that you can’t enforce a common purpose; this has to come voluntarily and “from within”, and enforcing it merely encourages violent dissent on the side of those who see their own purposes suppressed. If this is correct, then value pluralism doesn’t support authoritarianism.

More on value pluralism here.

What is Freedom? (4): Increasingly Demanding Types of Freedom

Freedom can be defined in different ways. Depending on the definition, it’s something that is more or less demanding. Definitions of freedom differ in the things that are required to make us free. Here’s an overview of a number of different definitions that you can find in the literature, from the least demanding to the most:

1. Absence of voluntary goal frustration

A basic, minimalist definition postulates freedom as the absence of goal frustration. We are free if no one blocks our goals, if we can do what we want and what we have set out to do, without anyone – in particular the government – frustrating the realization of our will or our goals. In this basic form, the frustrating agent always acts in a deliberately frustrating manner.

For example, a wife in a patriarchal society – call her Mary – wants to work outside of the household, is formally allowed to do so (there’s no choice frustration) but achieving this goal is made very difficult for her; both her husband and the government put a lot of obstacles in her way.

2. Absence of involuntary goal frustration

A slightly more demanding vision of freedom includes among the frustrating agents those who frustrate goal realization, not because of voluntary obstruction but because of other reasons not inspired by the will to frustrate or obstruct.

For example, although Mary has successfully divorced her husband and migrated to a more liberal county, she finds that none of her skills are marketable in her host society. Hence, the people in her host society involuntarily frustrate her goals and make her less free than she could be.

3. Absence of resource-based goal frustration

A step further: the blocking factors are not only agents but also a lack of resources. The resources can be either inner our external resources:

  • Inner resources: if we lack discipline, a good work ethic or a good education, we may be unable to reach our goals. Our passions, emotions and other tendencies may overwhelm our other tendencies that we require for the realization of our goals. In this case, our goals and freedom are frustrated not by external agents but by aspects of ourselves.
  • External resources: if we lack food and shelter, we may also be unable to reach our goals.

For example, Mary’s goal of finding employment is blocked by her inability to work in a disciplined way and/or her lack of means of transportation.

We are free to achieve our goals if there is no obstruction

  • by agents voluntarily frustrating our achievement,
  • by other agents involuntarily frustrating our achievements,
  • caused by the absence of internal or external resources (or the presence of obstructing “resources”).

4. Absence of choice frustration

The first 3 definitions above take for granted that we want something and try to realize it, even though we’re faced with obstacles of different kinds. The focus is on our ability to get it or on the factors inhibiting our ability. A fourth, still more demanding definition of freedom stipulates that we are free only when there is no goal frustration and when we have an unfrustrated choice between different goals or objects of volition.

For example, Mary’s only objective is caring for her family and she didn’t choose this objective from a certain range of possible desirable goals, for example because certain goals are not allowed. In this case, we will not call her free, not even if she wants her objective and can achieve it without frustration. She’s not free because she didn’t choose her objective from a range of possible objectives of unequal value.

A lack of freedom in this 4th sense can be caused by agents voluntarily or involuntarily limiting the range of options, or by a lack of resources.

For example, Mary only has one possible goals, caring for a family. Other valuable and desirable goals, such as becoming an artist or traveling the world, have been blocked by the cultural or legal norms of her society or by a lack of internal or external resources: she does not have the income, education or discipline necessary to make an evaluative choice among a larger set of options. Mary is less free than she would have been had the other desirable goals been possible options – possible in the sense of not having been removed from the set by agents, or in the sense of being backed up by the necessary resources.

As in the case of goal frustration (types 1, 2 and 3), choice frustration can be caused by interference or by the absence of resources or capabilities.

5. Absence of distortions in option formation

An even more demanding notion of freedom: freedom requires that agents or the absence of resources do not block options, but also that there are no distortions in option formation (as opposed to option choice). People are free if they can freely establish a wide set of possible desirable goals, then freely choose from them without someone or something frustrating certain options (#4), and then freely pursue the chosen options without frustration (#1-2-3).

So freedom is not just goal achievement or goal choice but also the ability to set up a range of possible choices.

For example, some options do not even cross Mary’s mind. Her option formation may be inhibited by early childhood nurturing that has removed certain possible goals from the option set. Or she may erase options from her mind: her realistic assessment of possibilities makes her adapt her preferences and choose those options which are approved by her patriarchal circumstances.

Such distortions in option formation – settling for the options that are feasible or just choosing from those options that have been instilled in us from early childhood on – may make us more happy since we’ll stop agonizing about the impossible, but it won’t make us more free.

6. Absence of the wrong options

And finally, the most demanding form of freedom stipulates that people should have the ability, not to choose from an undistorted set of options or to pursue the chosen options without hindrance, but the ability to choose the right options, i.e. only those options that are moral or those that make one’s life better.

This is the kind of freedom that makes sense of the paradoxical phrase “forcing one to be free”: only by forcing people to make the right choices can people become free.

For example, if Mary was given the freedom to choose between educating herself and working in the sex industry, then Mary would only be free if she chose the first option. The second option, although possibly profitable, would not make her free because it would not allow her to make her life better.

That last sentence makes it obvious that the conception of freedom as the right choice depends on controversial assessments of the “good life”. People cannot be free to decide on their own view of the good life, because then this conception of freedom would collapse into the previous one (#5). Some authority must decide what is the good life and force people to choose the right options. Hence, it’s unclear whether this conception of freedom still deserves the name. The paternalism and perfectionism inherent in the conception are more at home in authoritarian forms of government.

Just a small remark to end: although these 6 types have names that use negative language (“absence”), this does not imply that they are all negative types of freedom in the traditional sense.

More on different types of freedom here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (47): What’s So Funny About Paternalism?

In general, those who promote human rights will not be tempted to engage in paternalistic policies. That’s because human rights are about protecting people against each other, not about protecting people against themselves. And one of the foundations of human rights is the moral value of personal autonomy: people have a right to organize their lives according to their own plans and reasons, free from the influence and manipulation of others, even if others believe they are mistaken or self-destructive. Personal autonomy in this sense of the word is the basis of rights such as the right to privacy, property, political participation etc.

So, paternalism can be seen as detrimental to human rights. On the other hand, all societies are to some extent paternalistic, with the apparent consent of all. So what’s the deal? Let’s go through this topic in a systematic way, starting with some definitions, typologies and proposed justifications of paternalism, in order to end up with a clearer vision about paternalism’s temptations, dangers and limits.

Definition of paternalism

Paternalism is

  • interference
  • usually by the government
  • with an agent’s strictly self-regarding actions
  • and against the will of the agent.

It’s the use of coercion, force or incentives, against the initial will of the agent, with the purpose of imposing or preventing a certain type of action or lifestyle that has, respectively, positive or negative consequences for the agent and that does not harm or benefit a third party.

The purpose of paternalism is therefore to make the agent who is the object of paternalistic force, better off. She’s better off because she is forced, by the paternalist, to do good things to herself or to abstain from doing harm to herself.

Types of paternalism

This definition allows us to distinguish two types of paternalism: positive and negative (these qualifiers do not imply value judgments):

  • positive paternalism means forcing people to benefit themselves
  • negative paternalism means forcing people not to harm themselves.

The latter is much more common, I believe. Examples are anti-drug legislation, laws forcing people to wear seat belts or crash helmets etc. An example of the former are laws requiring people to contribute to a pension fund (although that case may not be strictly self-regarding since part of the motivation for such laws is the protection, not only of the future pensioner, but of his or her descendants or society in general).

Paternalism should therefore be distinguished from other types of coercion that aim at preventing people from harming others or forcing people to benefit others (such as laws against murder or laws imposing taxation respectively). Such non-paternalistic types of coercion focus on other-regarding consequences, whereas paternalistic coercion focuses on self-regarding consequences. Paternalism wants to limit the harm people’s actual or possible voluntary actions can do to themselves, and maximize the benefits that people’s possible but not voluntarily chosen actions can produce for themselves.

Paternalists are therefore “do-gooders” who want to maximize people’s utility, benefits, happiness, wellbeing etc. and who believe that this requires more than mutual protection.

(Other typologies of paternalism are, of course, possible: a soft form of paternalism would not intervene if people consciously and with full knowledge harm themselves, and only when self-harm results from lack of information; or would only intervene using incentives or “nudges” rather than coercion; hard paternalism would discount knowledge and intervene anyway; paternalism may be limited to the means people choose for their ends, or may also include these ends etc.).

Justifications of paternalism

Paternalists offer different reasons why they think that people, in some cases, should be prevented from engaging or forced to engage in certain actions.

  • As stated a moment ago, there may be a lack of knowledge on the part of the agent forcing the agent to unwittingly harm herself or fail to benefit herself. And this can be a lack of knowledge of different kinds:
    • First, the agent may not be aware of the harmful self-regarding consequences of a chosen or intended action, or may not be aware of the beneficial self-regarding consequences of an unchosen and unwanted action. In such cases, there are two possibilities. Either the simple delivery of information regarding the consequences – for example through education or communication – is enough to convince the agent to avoid harmful action or to choose beneficial action, and then no paternalistic action is necessary. Or this is not enough and paternalistic action is necessary. An example of the latter can be marijuana: according to some paternalists, the consequences of marijuana use are harmful, but this “information” doesn’t seem to register with users.
    • The absence of knowledge may be a deeper problem. The agent may not be aware of her true interests. Example: a terminally ill patient who wants to die may not be aware that her true interest – according to some – is respecting God’s will and God’s rules against suicide.
  • In many cases, people justify paternalism not because there’s a lack of knowledge, but because there’s a lack of “character” on the part of the agent. The agent may know very well what is and is not in her interest and what actions have beneficial or harmful consequences, but she just can’t bring herself to engage in or avoid those actions. There’s clarity about her interests and about consequences, but not the will, the courage, perseverance etc. to act correctly.

Most cases of paternalism, I guess, are of the first kind, where it is assumed that there’s a lack of continuous knowledge and a lack of conscious and lasting awareness of the consequences of certain actions, and that someone else, e.g. the state, knows better.

Hence, paternalism deserves its name. Paternalists assume – much like Plato – that society is divided into two groups of people, the “fathers” and the “children”, those who know better and are more rational, and those who don’t know and can’t be counted on to take their lives into their own hands. However, paternalism goes beyond the father-child metaphor because it believes that the “children” will never fully grow up: knowledge about consequences acquired through information and education, knowledge about which actions are or are not in the best interests of people, or knowledge about how people can act to best serve their true interests will often not be enough to act in a certain way. Apart from knowledge, character can be lacking, and that’s a fault that is much more difficult to correct without continuous paternalistic force.

The temptation of paternalism

So, all that sounds pretty awful, and yet all or most societies engage in some kind of paternalism without much public opposition. The examples given above are quite common. And indeed, some forms of paternalism are quite harmless and difficult to avoid. John Stuart Mill cites the case of a bridge that is about to collapse. The circumstances are such that only engineers are in a position to know this. Regular drivers don’t and can’t know the consequences of their actions – in this case driving across the bridge – and should therefore be prevented from acting by those who know better. This isn’t usually called paternalism, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear difference between this case and real cases of paternalism, such as laws forcing people to wear crash helmets (assuming that the reason why people don’t wear helmets is an insufficient awareness of the possible consequences), or moral rules dictating that we should try to convince our friends not to commit suicide if they are so inclined.

So, paternalism is there to stay. I don’t think there are many “hard anti-paternalists” around. Hence, as is often the case on this blog, we are faced with value pluralism and two contradicting values: in some cases it’s obviously good to protect people against themselves, but at the same time it is generally correct to respect people’s autonomy, their self-determination and their right to make their own decisions and to live according to their own reasons and motives, free from external forces.

Where’s the trade-off? I would say that the burden of proof is on those wishing to limit people’s autonomy, given the general importance of autonomy. Their case can made stronger when, for example, there’s absolutely no doubt that a certain course of action will produce serious harm to the agent. Otherwise the case for paternalistic coercion is less strong and the best we can do is simply warn people of the possible consequences. Their case can also be made stronger when medical opinion about an agent’s neurological or psychological disorders is unanimous.

The dangers of paternalism

The burden of proof is on paternalists because of the risks inherent in paternalism. We also tend to overestimate the effectiveness of paternalism. Generally, individuals are the best judges of their own needs and wants and of the means to realize them. It’s not obvious that a paternalistic class of “fathers” can have better knowledge, given the vast number of people, options and risks involved. And even if individuals make mistakes, the harm done by forcing them into a system in which they are treated like children may be greater than the harm they do to themselves when left alone. Most people value the freedom to decide for themselves and the value of this freedom can sometimes compensate the cost of self-inflicted harm. It’s also likely that mistakes make people better judges.

Does that mean that people should have the freedom to damn themselves? In most cases, yes, if that’s someone’s free and voluntary choice, made in the light of all the information available and accessible to her.

What is Equality? (3): Equality of Rights

Equality of what? There’s hardly a more confusing philosophical question. This is my attempt at sorting things out. I apologize for the length of this post, but there’s a lot to digest.

Equality of resources

A well-known problem with theories that focus on equality of resources is that different people need different resources because they have different abilities and different needs. Someone may need more food (in terms of calorie intake) because she has a physically demanding job, or may need more education than the average person because she has a brain dysfunction making it difficult for her to read or remember. Someone with a physical handicap may need expensive tools such as a wheelchair – and therefore more resources compared to a person not suffering a handicap – in order to have the same capability or opportunity to realize freely chosen goals as that other person.

The latter is an important point which I’ll come back to later on: you can’t just think about resources in isolation; you’ll have to consider which purposes these resources serve. Even if different people have the same purposes, they need different amounts of resources to achieve these purposes (and when they have different purposes, the need for unequal resources is even stronger). Hence, equality of resources seems to be an inadequate theory of equality.

A standard reply by resource based theories of equality is to count someone’s abilities (such as the ability to walk) as resources and try to equalize those as well. In our example, the handicapped person would then have equal resources when she has more money than average and just enough money to compensate the loss of resources resulting from her handicap. So it looks like equality of resources is a theory that can be salvaged.

The problem with this rescue is that not all abilities can be equalized by way of the redistribution of resources. Certain handicaps can be reasonably compensated by way of extra (financial or other) resources; paralysis may be one of them, especially given the most recent breakthroughs. But other handicaps can’t. A blind person for instance will probably never have equal abilities, no matter how much extra money or tools she gets. Her loss of eyesight is a loss of resources that can’t be fully compensated by other, equivalent resources.

Another problem with this attempted rescue of the equality of resources theory: there’s no good reason to limit abilities to physical ones. Talents are also abilities, and if you insist that all abilities are resources that should be equalized as much as possible then you’ll have to explain how to equalize talent. It seems very difficult if not impossible to supply extra resources to the less talented so that they end up with equal resources compared to the more talented. Like in the case of many physical abilities, a lack of talent can’t be compensated by way of extra resources.

So the attempt to rescue resource theories by including abilities in the pot of resources looks like it’s bound to fail. Resource theorist could reply that abilities and talents should be viewed as commonly owned resources. And, indeed, no one deserves her talents or most of her abilities; those are largely a matter of luck. Hence it’s not silly to view them as commonly owned. A talented person using her talents only for her personal benefit seems to be making an unjust use of her good luck. If abilities and talents are viewed as a common resource, then equality of resources could be achieved by giving those with few abilities and talents a right to use a share of the abilities and talents of others. However, this solution to the problems faced by resource theories creates another problem because it seems to imply the slavery of the talented (in the words of Dworkin). A talented person will find that she is less able to realize her freely chosen goals compared to another, less talented person, and equality of resource is justified, if at all, by the fact that it allows people to have an equal ability to realize goals. We thereby reverse the initial problem faced by resource theories, and put the burden of equality of resources on those with more abilities rather than on those with less abilities. That’s not a solution; it’s shifting the problem elsewhere.

If we can’t equalize all abilities, maybe equality should be limited: we can try to equalize as many abilities as possible and as far as possible. We can’t equalize a blind person’s abilities, but we can go some distance towards equality (we can offer Braille, improved transportation infrastructure etc.). We can’t equalize the abilities of a person without any talent, but we can offer this person some resources that help her attain a decent level of abilities.

Equality of preference satisfaction

But then we’ll have to say something more: we can’t talk about abilities in isolation (like we can’t talk about resources in isolation); we have to answer the question: abilities to do or be what exactly? One possible answer, and in fact the traditional liberal answer is: whatever people think they should do or be. Then we’re essentially talking about equality of preference satisfaction. Welfare is another word for preference satisfaction and the theory that tries to equalize people’s preference satisfaction is usually called equality of welfare. The purpose is then to distribute resources and improve abilities in such a way that people’s preference satisfaction (or welfare) is equal, or rather as equal as possible given people’s different and often fixed abilities to do things.

However, this theory faces a similar problem as equality of resources: people don’t just have unequal abilities and talents but also unequal preferences (preferences in the sense of the ability to do or be something). And those different preferences require different amounts and types of resources. As such, that’s not a problem. The problem is that some people have preferences that requires very large amounts of resources in order to be satisfied, and these extraordinary preferences are often self-chosen. In this case, these people’s claim on others to the resources necessary for the satisfaction of their extraordinary preferences seems hard to justify, especially from an egalitarian viewpoint. Society is under no obligation to redistribute resources to these people in order to guarantee equal preference satisfaction. Caviar fans have to work for their own money. And if they won’t, well then they have to adapt their preferences rather than appeal to society to redistribute the resources they need for their preference satisfaction. This is one reason why equality of preference satisfaction also seems to fail as a valid theory of equality.

However, we shouldn’t always force people to take care of their unequal or extraordinary preferences by themselves or to modify their preferences if they can’t. Some idiosyncratic preferences are closely connected to people’s identities, and in some cases those may not be self-chosen. Indigenous tribes may consider it essential to their unchosen identity that they have an exclusive right to a certain part of a country’s territory and resources (such as hunting grounds and the stock of fish or deer). There may even be self-chosen preferences that merit the same treatment. People with a preference for artistic expression may have a good claim to transfers of social resources (in the form of subsidies for the arts for instance). In those cases, equality of preference satisfaction does also apply to extraordinary preferences.

Still, notwithstanding these counter-examples, there are numerous cases of preferences requiring relatively large amounts of resources that those holding the preferences can’t produce themselves and at the same time can’t legitimately claim from society. Hence, equality of preference satisfaction does not seem a worthwhile goal.

And it’s not worthwhile for another reason as well. It’s not just that some preferences require unjustifiably large amounts of resources; some preferences are immoral. One can’t justify redistribution of social resources for the satisfaction of immoral preferences. Yet another argument against equality of preference satisfaction results from reflection about the term “preferences”. What is a preference? Is it every unreflected desire? Or rather only those desires an agent would pursue if she had the chance to rationally consider and evaluate all possible desires on the basis of all pertinent information? Do we want a drug addict and a bacillophobe to engage in preference satisfaction? And to redistribute social resources in such a way that they can in an equal manner compared to students and entrepreneurs?

Welfare theories may start off with equality and neutrality regarding preferences (the liberal premise), but because of the problems of morality and unreflected or irrational preferences, they quickly become paternalistic. Welfare theories, compared to resource theories, have the advantage of focusing not on instrumental values but on what ultimately matters to people, namely preference satisfaction. But not everything that matters to people, or that people think matters to them, should receive equal social concern or approval. Some things that matter to some people should not be encouraged from a moral point of view, let alone be subsidized. Other things don’t merit support from redistribution of resources because those things are irrational or self-chosen, expensive and not instrumental to other values such as identity. But once you have to decide which things that matter to people should or should not have a place in social policies that aim at equal preference satisfaction, you are likely to act in a paternalistic way and endanger another important value, namely freedom.

And even when welfare theories manage to remain neutral regarding preferences and don’t encourage or discourage certain preferences, they face the problem of comparing amounts of preference satisfaction across different preferences. Does a music lover, who has the resources to listen to music one hour a day, have an equal level of preference satisfaction as the American Indian who is able to hunt and fish freely and undisturbed whenever he wants? Are those things not inherently incommensurable? If so, how are we to achieve equality?

Equality of opportunity of preference satisfaction

Given the problems faced by preference satisfaction theories, one could assume that theories of equality should move to equality of opportunity of preference satisfaction. Rather than distribute resources so that people have equal preference satisfaction, we could limit distribution to those resource people need in order to have an equal opportunity to satisfy their preferences.

This move, however, doesn’t solve anything. We don’t want people to have the opportunity to act immorally, let alone the equal opportunity. And neither do we want them to have the equal opportunity to do expensive and extravagant things.

Equality of rights

Fortunately, there is a way out of this mess. We have to limit the range of equal opportunity, equal resources, equal abilities and equal preference satisfaction. A social and political regime should offer people an equal opportunity to a limited set of actions, functionings and beings, namely those that are necessary conditions for their human rights (see also here). People have equal human rights, and they should therefore have an equal opportunity to enjoy those rights in an equal way. Likewise, people should have the resources and abilities that are necessary for them to enjoy their rights, and their preference satisfaction should be a social concern and should be equalized only when those preferences are preferences for human rights (or for the conditions and resources for or the opportunities to enjoy human rights). (And yes, rights are preferences in the sense that they can be waived).

A problem faced by all theories of equality – including the one focused on or limited by equal human rights – is that people often squander their resources, their abilities, their preference satisfaction and their opportunities. They should be held responsible for their voluntary choices, and if those choices put them in a situation in which they have less resources, abilities, preference satisfaction or opportunities compared to others, then they don’t have a claim to more of those. That’s true for all resources, abilities, preferences and opportunities, except the resources, abilities, preferences and opportunities for human rights. If someone squanders her financial resources, she still has a right not to be poor. But if she loses her ability to acquire enough caviar, then she should take responsibility and not claim that society restores her resources. Similarly, if someone loses the ability to use her limbs through her own negligence, she still has a right to healthcare and mobility and a legitimate claim on society. However, if she thereby also squanders her ability to seduce men, she has no claim on anyone. If the same person has a preference for the enjoyment of a particular human right, but puts herself in a situation in which this enjoyment is impossible, she still has a claim to help. But her preference for fine chocolate made impossible through self-induced or non-self-induced diabetes doesn’t generate a legitimate claim on society. And, finally, if she squandered a good opportunity to education, she still has a valid claim to get some minimum level of education; if, however, she squandered a good dating opportunity, she doesn’t have a claim to the restoration of this opportunity.

Although the sidelining of responsibility is usually not a good thing, there are some practical advantages to it in this case. It’s often extremely difficult to detect responsible or irresponsible behavior. Seemingly irresponsible behavior may look like a voluntary choice but in reality it’s perhaps a choice that is determined by genetics, upbringing etc. Theories of equality which make responsibility and choice a precondition for equality – like luck egalitarianism for instance – face some challenging problems and a high risk of mistake.

Luck egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is yet another theory of equality. It demands that people’s unchosen luck (called brute luck, as opposed to option luck, the latter being the luck that people have when taking risks) be equalized. People should start life (in some versions of luck egalitarianism, adult life) with equal fortune, and equal fortune means equal resources, abilities and opportunities. They should be compensated for misfortune due to the lottery of birth. After that, all inequalities resulting from voluntary choice should be accepted by people themselves and by society.

Luck egalitarianism, like all other theories of equality discussed here (with the exception of equality of rights), is plagued by serious problems. Apart from the epistemological one (the difficulty of detecting voluntary choice and responsibility), there’s the problem of cruelty: why should we leave people to starve even if they have brought starvation upon themselves? They have, after all, a right not to starve. And then there’s the problem of intrusiveness: the epistemological problem will force luck egalitarian governments to enact KGB style measures in order to gain as much certainty as possible about responsibility. Other problems are discussed here.

The same solution is available here: instead of compensating people for all types of bad brute luck (but not option luck), we should compensate them for bad luck – brute or option – when this bad luck implies violations of their human rights or difficulties for future enjoyment of their human rights. People who are born paralyzed or who become paralyzed later in life – due to an accident which is or isn’t their own fault – all have a right to mobility and hence an egalitarian claim to social assistance. People who are born without talents or who squander their talents, don’t have such a claim because there is no right to have talent.

What is Freedom? (1): Three Kinds of Freedom

People usually talk about two kinds of freedom, negative and positive freedom. This common framing of the discussion about freedom is a result of the pervasive influence of Isaiah Berlin. However, this influence can be inhibiting in the sense that it can discourage other ways of thinking about freedom. Let me propose one other way.

We can, for instance, argue that there are not two but three kinds of freedom. Take the case of a business man being unfaithful to his wife. He tells her he’s going on a business trip but he’s meeting his lover instead. On his way to her, he’s not hindered in any way on his trip. There are no impediments or obstacles to overcome. His wife doesn’t try to stop him since she’s not aware of the affair. He takes the plane to see his lover and the airline cooperates in an unusually efficient way, security checks are cleared without any problems etc.

So the business man is free in the first sense of the word: freedom from external impediments. Let’s call this FREEDOM 1. It’s, in the tradition of Berlin, a negative kind of freedom.

However, the business man, while on his trip, is torn by guilt. Part of him tells him to stop and go back home. He knows that’s the best thing to do. But another part of him is driven by sexual desire and passion. The rational part wants him to be free of sexual desires because it knows that they may destroy everything that is dear to him.

So the business man isn’t free in this second sense of the word: freedom from internal impediments. He’s not free, not because of the presence of outside control, but because of the absence of self-control. Let’s call this FREEDOM 2. It’s also, obviously, a negative form of freedom in the sense that it requires the absence of internal impediments to a preferred action. (Berlin would not call this a negative freedom, but this post isn’t about Berlin, so let’s skip that).

We can also define this freedom 2 by way of the concept of “second-order desires” (following Harry Frankfurt). You are free if you can exercise self-control or self-mastery, and you can if you are able to act on your second-order desires. In our example, the businessman is free to have sex with his lover – no one forces him to have sex with her or to not have sex with her (this is freedom 1) – but he’s not free in the sense that he succeeds in acting on his second-order desire to remain faithful to his wife.

Freedom 1 is essentially a political concept, and receives most attention in political discourse. It’s the basis of concepts such a limited government, rule of law etc. Freedom 2 is usually part of discussions about psychology, personal morality and some forms of religion (such as Buddhism, which teaches that we should rid ourselves from desires). It also features in criminal justice (to what extent is a person criminally responsible for his or her acts, and to what extent is that person driven by passions, desires etc.). For this reason, freedom 2 can be likened or perhaps even equated to the concept of free will.

Freedom 2, although not political, can be reinterpreted in a political sense. Personal self-control and self-government – with the rational part of the individual taking control over the irrational and self-destructive part – can be seen as the starting point of a certain form of political freedom. Self-government is then translated from an individual notion into a collective one. If an individual wants to exercise self-government, he or she may also want to do that together with others. A society takes the model of individual self-control and uses it to exercise collective control over common matters.

Let’s call this FREEDOM 3: you’re free if, as a member of a community, you participate equally in the government of common affairs. This freedom is autonomy and democracy. One could call it a negative freedom as well, in the sense that a community, in order to govern itself, should be free from the rule of external forces (a dictator, a ruling class etc.). But even when those external forces are absent a community still needs to act together in order to govern itself. In that way, freedom 3 is not similar to freedom 2, and therefore it makes much more sense to call it a positive freedom: not merely a freedom from something, but a freedom to control a common destiny, a freedom to make your own rules and laws. (You could argue that freedom 2 is also positive in this sense, but it is much more negative than freedom 3 in other ways. And anyway I want to go beyond the positive-negative distinction here, so let’s drop that).

Freedom 3 is autonomy and democracy because it allows a community to take control of its common life. The problem with freedom 3, as already argued by Berlin, is that it can easily spill over in paternalism and become unfreedom. Rather than a collective acting together in a democratic spirit in order to govern their common affairs, we have a split in the collective: some use the split inside an individual between the rational part that tries to govern the irrational part and achieve freedom in this way (i.e. freedom 2), as a metaphor justifying a social distinction between more and less rational individuals. The former know best what is in the rational interest of the latter, and start to force the latter to act “rationally”, whatever that means (e.g. avoid adultery or compulsive gambling, live according to the communist worldview etc.). By forcing the irrational to act rationally, the paternalists make the irrational free, just like an individual who forces her irrational part to act rationally thereby makes herself free (freedom 2).

Coercively forcing an adulterer to mend his ways makes him free because mending his ways is presumed to be what he really wants (his second-order desire). So people are coerced for their own good, a good that they themselves are perhaps too blind to see.

This criticism was forcefully described by Berlin, and it remains very useful. However, I don’t think it necessarily discredits freedom 3. On the contrary, paternalism is a deviation from freedom 3, not its logical conclusion. Freedom 3 can avoid the pitfall of paternalism as long as it focuses on the mode of formation of desires rather than on their content. (See John Christman for a more elaborate version of this argument).

Freedom 3 remains important, like the other two types.

  • Freedom 1 is important because people want to be able to do what they want with a minimum of external impediments.
  • Freedom 2 is important because people often want to be able to decide rationally what they want, rather than instinctively. And rationally here means a thinking and reasonable assessment of the available options, which in turn means that you’re not forced into an option by your passions (or by your government, tradition, family etc. in which case we’re back in freedom 1).
  • And freedom 3 is important because people want to be autonomous and want to shape their common life. They don’t want their common lives dominated by a ruler or a ruling class.

If all three types of freedom are important, then none of them is sufficient by itself. Freedom 1 leaves the individual at the mercy of internal impediments and assumes – incorrectly – that the prior fixation of the individual’s volition is unproblematic. Freedom 2 shows that it is problematic. But it’s not only problematic because of the possible effect of passions; see here and here for some other reasons why the fixation of volition requires more than simply the absence of overbearing passions.

People do not simply want unimpeded action. They also want to reflect on what it is that they want. Freedom 1 is also insufficient for another reason. External impediments are often defined in a very limited way: to some who adopt freedom 1, only impediments intentionally produced by fellow human beings count, which means that unintentional impediments such as economic forces or non-human or natural impediments such as a handicap do not make people unfree (they merely make them “unable” to do something). That seems to me very restrictive. What difference does it make that my freedom of movement is impeded by an authoritarian government rather than by my poverty or disability?

Freedom 1 is insufficient because it can’t produce freedom 2, but also because it can’t produce freedom 3. It can’t be, by itself, the basis of democratic government. It’s perfectly compatible with some forms of limited dictatorship, on the condition that this dictatorship is relatively non-interfering. However, one could argue that a democracy – freedom 3 – is the best way to protect freedom 1 since a democracy protects human rights, and human rights limit external impediments.

Freedom 1 is insufficient, but so is freedom 2. Freedom 2 – the absence of internal impediments – can’t possibly produce freedom 1. On the contrary, it’s often a reaction to the absence of freedom 1. When faced with numerous external impediments, it can be reasonable to retreat into yourself and cut back your desires (like a Buddhist). The other option, going against the external impediments that block your desires, can be very costly, especially when the impediments are caused by your dictatorial government.

Freedom 3 as well is insufficient, even though it promotes freedom 1. After all, it doesn’t necessarily promote freedom 1, especially not for democratic minorities. And it’s completely unable to promote freedom 2.

The Causes of Poverty (38): Behavior

Theories about the causes of poverty typically fall into two camps:

  1. either the poor are victims of circumstances that are irrational (trade restrictions, misguided government policies, etc.)
  2. or the irrationality is situated within the minds, lifestyles, behaviors and values of the poor whose lack of rational calculation and foresight condemns them to a life of poverty.

Theory 1 describes the poor as people who satisfy the commonly accepted economics paradigm of the rational economic actor, but who also face economic or political structures that make it difficult for them to reap the usual benefits of rational self-interested economic interaction in a mutually beneficial market. Theory 2 blames not the dysfunctions or imperfections of the market and of government, but the dysfunctions of the self-destructive individual.

Poverty alleviation in theory 1 means market corrections or improvements in government (redistribution, market liberalization, breaking poverty traps, institutional improvement, the struggle against corruption etc.). In theory 2, it means better education, family planning and perhaps even psychological and paternalistic guidance. Some will go to extremes such as sterilization or eugenics. In the immortal words of Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Carrie Buck is a feeble-minded white woman who was committed to the State Colony… She is the daughter of a feeble-minded mother… and the mother of an illegitimate feeble-minded child… An Act of Virginia, approved March 20, 1924, recites that the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives… We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson. v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough. (source, source)

That’s not so popular anymore these days, fortunately, and invasive actions like these or like the aboriginal “Stolen Generations” are widely condemned. And yet, extremely paternalistic interventions still occur (take for example the current Australian aboriginal policy, aptly called “the intervention“).

Theory 1 seems to blame “society” for the fate of the poor, and this violates some of our philosophical intuitions about (limited) self-control and self-responsibility. Theory 2 seems very cold-hearted and even classist, and violates moral intuitions about the requirements and consequences of living together. That’s probably why the most common view is a mix of both theories (call it theory 3). Most of us believe that poverty has multiple causes and that these causes can be situated both in the economic-political structures and in individual psychology and behavior, in varying degrees depending on the specific cases.

However, there’s also a theory 4, described in this paper, and it’s one that avoids the (partially) paternalistic, classist, anti-activist or anti-individualist pitfalls of the previous three theories:

The behavioral patterns of the poor, we argue, may be neither perfectly calculating nor especially deviant. Rather, the poor may exhibit the same basic weaknesses and biases as do people from other walks of life, except that in poverty, with its narrow margins for error, the same behaviors often manifest themselves in more pronounced ways and can lead to worse outcomes. (source)

So the poor only give the impression of being deviant and self-destructive. They are, but not more or less than anyone else; it just shows more. For example, many poor people fail to open a bank account, notwithstanding the large benefits and the low costs of doing so. That failure is self-destructive because it increases the cost of payments and revenues, something the poor can afford least of all. However, this doesn’t prove that the poor are particularly self-destructive people. It only shows the effects of minor and universal human failures, such as embarrassment (when faced with a bank teller), short-termism, time preference etc., failures which happen to have graver consequences for the poor than for the rest of us because of their smaller error margins.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (16): You Always Hurt The Ones You Love

Inflicting suffering on people is wrong. This simple and basic moral rule is a large part of the justification of human rights (although there are many other justifications). And yet, the parents among us – the large majority of human beings – simply by bringing children into existence, guarantee that those children will suffer. No life is without suffering. And they do so wittingly and willingly. So ignorance or impotence do not excuse this imposition of suffering. These children don’t get born because they have a right to be born. Non-existent people don’t have a right to come into existence. The opposite sentence would have some really scary and dizzying consequences. They are born because of parents’ choices. And those are informed choices. We all know that no life, not even the best one, is without suffering. Hence, the parents are, to some extent, responsible for this suffering (read more about the chain of causation here).

The fact that people keep reproducing without so much as an ounce of remorse, indicates that the willful infliction of suffering is an acceptable part of life, even if it is an infliction upon those closest to you. Perhaps we can explain this strange fact by the generally rational belief that the good that comes out of life compensates for the suffering we inflict on our children. Life’s suffering is just the price to pay for a greater good. Overall, most people do indeed find life worth living, notwithstanding the occasional suffering. Otherwise suicide would be much more common, I guess. But that kind of cost-benefit analysis is something we usually find repugnant. Many of us shudder at the decision to incinerate thousands of Japanese in order to end WWII.

But perhaps this cost-benefit analysis is much more acceptable when the cost for one persons isn’t intended to benefit another person. In our topic, the costs and benefits that are weighed against each other are for one and the same person. And yet, it’s not this person that does the weighing; it’s her parents. This is a case of literal paternalism: we decide for another person that some harm we do to her is necessary for a greater good. Like we decide that people can’t smoke cannabis (doing so is imposing a harm) because we believe that it’s in their interest and for their benefit. And paternalism is generally only acceptable when dealing with children, and with children as long as they are children. When reproducing we of course also inflict suffering on our children when they are grown up.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (10): Limited Freedom and the Temptation of the Future

It’s hardly controversial to claim that some limits on freedom are necessary in order to protect the freedom of others. Few people consistently argue in favor of an unlimited ability to do as one likes. More controversial is the internalization of this principle, in which it is possible and acceptable that a person’s current freedom is restricted in order to protect that same person’s future freedom.

I think this is only generally accepted when limited to children. A child loses some of its freedom when it is forced to attend school, do homework, learn good manners etc. because this will greatly improve his or her future opportunities and choices. A restriction of current freedom serves to expand future freedom. A child that isn’t forced in this way will find that he or she has fewer choices when grown up, and therefore less freedom.

But is this “less is more” philosophy of freedom, or the principle that one needs to be forced to be free (in the infamous words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), also applicable to adults? Well, it does happen, whether it’s morally legitimate or not. Smoking bans, drug bans, helmet rules etc. are examples. Communism is also an example, although obviously a more extreme one. Citizens of communist states were often “encouraged” to suffer now for a better future and for the “reign of freedom”. There’s also a long tradition of anti-hedonism. A life focused on pleasure, desire and the avoidance of effort is frowned upon because of the damage it can do to the future self. Perhaps less today than in previous ages, but still… In all these examples, people take away other people’s freedom in the name of freedom. Limits on freedom are deemed necessary for the future enlargement of freedom. External discipline and control is put in place of lacking self-discipline and self-control, or external knowledge in place of lacking internal knowledge. If the objects of their coercion complain about it now, then perhaps later in life will they understand and appreciate the reasons why they were forced to do certain things.

This temptation of the future, as we can call it, is in fact an effort to equalize freedom: those who live a hedonistic life or who don’t understand their own long term interests run the risk of diminished freedom in the future. Other people will be tempted by a possible future freedom to try to restrict these people’s current freedom. Doing so, they believe, will give them access to equal freedom compared to those who do understand the demands of future freedom.

The problem here isn’t that the premise is stupid, but that the consequences of this premise can be harmful. Most people would readily agree that only a fully developed individual who doesn’t constantly yield to temptation and who invests effort in his or her life can have a wide spectrum of choice and hence freedom. Someone who forgoes effort is likely to become an uneducated bigot who has the freedom to choose between being a coach potato one minute and a nitwit the next.

But what gives other people the right to force this nitwit to make an effort and try to access a more interesting notion of freedom in the future? Even assuming that the use of force is effective in some objective and verifiable sense (that may be true of compulsory education for children, but not for other types of force directed at adults), are you morally allowed make people free by treating them as infants or idiots dependent on coercion and education? And, if so, is this freedom worth the disrespect that it entails? It’s clear that we’re rapidly turning the corner to some kind of fanatical altruism in which freedom is no longer the ability to do as you want but rather the ability to do as you should want.

Does this mean we shouldn’t ever force people for the sake of their future freedom? I don’t think so. There is room for some types of legal measures that protect obviously self-destructive people against themselves. Prohibition of hard drugs and of the free purchase and use of certain pharmaceuticals, as well as some measures regarding road safety are some examples of limitations that receive widespread approval, accept among hardcore libertarians. (Although most of them also go to the doctor when they are sick and obediently do as the doctor orders. They may say that this is their own free decision and therefore not comparable to legal prohibitions of strictly self-regarding behavior, but is this really their free choice? How many sick libertarians choose not to do what the doctor says?). We just have to be careful that we don’t go beyond a certain minimum (which I agree is difficult to determine) and don’t quietly slip into paternalism and the rule of the technocrats who think they know better how people should lead their lives.

Restrictions of freedom that aim to modify strictly self-regarding behavior must remain the exception for at least three reasons:

  1. It’s very difficult to prove that somebody does not understand his interest in the right way and that there is somebody else who has a better understanding of this interest.
  2. Even if 1 isn’t a problem, how are we going to select these “wiser” persons?
  3. And even if neither 1 nor 2 is a problem, how are we certain that our current restrictions have a positive net impact on future freedom? The future is, after all, hard to predict and past predictions that have been shown to be correct will not necessarily remain correct in the future.

Most of the time, people know very well what is or is not in their interest and how to maximize their future options and freedom by themselves. Democracy would be impossible or undesirable otherwise. Only if people know their own interests can they be given the power to decide for themselves and the power to control whether laws or policies are in their interest. Otherwise, guardianship or a paternalistic form of government would be more appropriate.

No matter how important it is to care and show compassion, we should not allow ourselves to get carried away by it. In general, we should allow people to decide for themselves, to determine their own way of life and their own interests, even if we believe that these people have chosen a wrong, inferior or offensive way of life and harm themselves as a consequence of the way in which they understand their interests (if they harm other people as well, then it is easier to intervene). Of course, we can advise people and try to convince them, but we should be very careful if we want to impose a way of life on people through the use of (legal) force, no matter how reasonable and beneficial this way of life seems to us. What is best for me is not necessarily best for everybody. Most people value the freedom to decide for themselves. The value of this freedom may even outweigh the value or price of any possible outcomes of their decisions.

Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be forever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties and increased direction of their feelings and aims toward wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being. John Stuart Mill

The Causes of Poverty (34): Desert

Those who agree that the government should help the poor usually don’t make qualitative distinctions between different kinds of poor people. They only separate the mildly poor from the horribly poor and modify the assistance policies accordingly.

My personal views are similar to these, albeit that I want to promote private charity before and above government assistance. The recent debates about healthcare reform in the U.S. were in essence about one type of assistance to the “poor”, namely those not poor enough to be eligible to existing government programs yet not wealthy enough to be able to buy adequate private insurance. During these debates, Bryan Caplan – a libertarian – proposed to make a distinction between deserving poor and non-deserving poor:

All [the government] needs to do is provide a means-tested subsidy to make private health insurance more affordable for those who need it most. The subsidy should be based on income, wealth, chronic health status … on past and current behavior. People who engage in voluntary risky behaviors – smoking, drinking, over-eating, mountain-climbing, violence, etc. – should receive a smaller subsidy, or no subsidy at all. The same goes for people who failed to buy long-term insurance when they were healthy and employed, then ran into health or financial troubles. (source)

We can broaden this to poverty assistance generally. And we can also expand the argument to a moral one rather than one that is simply about the need, appropriateness or scope of government intervention in poverty reduction, since I believe government intervention in poverty reduction is simply a fallback option in the case of deficient private charity (see here for my argument). The government should step in when individuals and groups fail to honor their private duties towards fellow human beings. The proper question is then: do we, as individuals, have a moral duty to help the poor, directly and through the taxes we pay to the government? I think that’s the case, and if I’m right we should ask if this duty is limited to the deserving poor. In other words, can we ignore the predicament of those who are themselves the cause of this predicament through overly risky behavior, self-destructive behavior, or stupid and irrational behavior?

The affirmative answer to that question has some intuitive appeal. And it’s also coherent with a long tradition in moral philosophy that argues against paternalism as an attitude that protects people against their freedom to damn themselves. However, things aren’t quite as intuitive as this. A duty to assist only the deserving poor requires a clear and unambiguous distinction between desert and lack of desert. I don’t think it’s really possible to decide in all cases, or even most cases, that someone has or hasn’t been deserving. Take the case of a person engaging in systematic over-eating and thereby destroying his or her health and ending up in poverty. At first sight, that person deserves poverty. People are agents with a free will and have a choice to engage in self-destructive behavior. However, we know that education and culture influence eating habits, so the causes of this person’s poverty are far more diverse than simply his or her lifestyle decisions. Even if there is an element of voluntariness in this person’s decisions, at what level of voluntariness do we put the threshold and say that this person does indeed deserve his or her predicament, notwithstanding the effect of outside causes?

There is also a problem of information deficit. People can act in a bona fide way, believing that they don’t act in a self-destructive way, based on the information that they have gathered using the skills that they have been taught. How on earth can you go and judge whether people were sufficiently bona fide? You’d need the KGB to do that, and still…

In addition, there may be a chain of desert: if, through some miracle of understanding and close monitoring, you can determine that a person isn’t to blame for his or her own predicament, maybe you can decide to assist that person but reclaim the money from his or her parents because those parents were undeserving while educating the person. In that case, the least of your problems would be an infinite regress.

Also, given the fact that poverty reduction, because of the regular failure of private charity, isn’t simply an interpersonal matter and that therefore the government will have to step in at some point, do we really want the government to start separating the deserving from the undeserving? Look at the answer of another libertarian, Tyler Cowen:

First, I am worried about a governmental process which first judges the “deservingness” of each poor person before setting the proper subsidy. Do they videotape your life as you go along, or do they convene a Job-like trial when you submit receipts for reimbursement? (source)

So we have a fundamental tension between on the one hand the value of individual responsibility and the need to have people make their own choices and suffer the consequences (if no one has to suffer the consequences of choices it’s hard to call them real choices), and, on the other hand, the need to help the wretched of the earth, even those who may be (partly) responsible for their own wretchedness (I say “may be” because I don’t believe there’s a way to know, not even with a KGB).

The useful thing about this dilemma is that it makes clear that people are indeed in some cases the cause of their own poverty, at least in part. It’s very important to determine the real causes of poverty if you want to do something about it. Helping poor people after they have become poor is just part of the solution. It’s better to prevent poverty altogether, and this dilemma helps doing that because it forces people to see that behavior is a cause. Hence they should be able to adapt their behavior.