Category Archives: Political Philosophy/Theory

Libertarianism and Abortion

I offer this as a tentative foray into a discussion about abortion, obviously spurred by the recent SCOTUS decision, Dobbs v. Jackson.  I note that I have long been convinced that as brilliant as Judith Jarvis Thomson’s contribution to the debate was, it doesn’t actually solve anything. (For more on that, see the chapter Lauren Hall and I co-authored in The Routledge Companion to Libertarianism.)

Different libertarians define their political ideology in different ways.  (No surprise; different egalitarians do this, different socialists do this, different welfare liberals do this; in short, all political ideologies are multiply defined.  Presumably those adopting the same name have at least a family resemblance.)  

Some libertarians adopt the Non-Aggression Principle. Others adopt a view that indicates simply that individual liberty is the predominant value, never set aside to promote any other value. Others accept that natural rights are the foundation for the view. Others adopt some form of consequentialism. My own libertarianism is defined by commitment to the harm principle: no interference with an individual or consensual group is permissible except to rectify or prevent genuine significant harm.

What does this my form of libertarianism say about abortion? If the principle was only about harm to persons, abortion would presumably be clearly permissible since the fetus is not a person even though it is human. Of course, religious libertarians are likely to believe that all human life is sacred and that the intentional ending of such is necessarily wrongful. While I do not believe that, the harm principle in my view is not only about persons or humans. Genuine significant harm can occur to non-humans and merit interference, so whether or not the fetus is a person is not all that matters.

The question then is: is abortion a genuine significant harm? To clarify, I use the term “significant” to indicate that de minimis harms are not the sorts of things we interfere with (the cost of doing so may be a greater loss than the harm itself). I use the term “genuine” to indicate we are not discussing mere hurts or offenses, but hurts that wrongfully set back the interests of another (for more on this, see Feinberg or chapter 3 of my 2018). Once this is recognized, it should be clear that some abortions may well be genuine significant harms and some may not. Aborting an 8 month old fetus merely because one decided on the spur of the moment to take a world tour is, I think, wrongful. It would also be significant—ending the life of a human that could have been very good. On the other hand, aborting a 6 week old fetus because one was raped is unlikely to be wrongful and is at least plausibly less significant since at that stage spontaneous abortions are not uncommon.

Some will now likely object that what is wrongful is subjective. I basically think this is false—it is at least false if meant in anyway that is troubling for what I am saying here. People do not simply decide for themselves what is wrongful.   For more on this, see this BHL post and this one.

Assume I am right thus far: some abortions are genuinely and significantly harmful and some are not. What does that mean for law? On my view, answering this means first recognizing that law is a blunt instrument and as such has to wielded carefully. Perhaps making all abortions illegal after 8 months pregnant is reasonable. Making all abortions illegal is not. If a clear set of guidelines for wrongfulness can be decided upon, perhaps laws against abortions that are wrongful would be reasonable. I can’t here work out what such a list would include, but I do think a law against aborting 8 month old fetuses reasonable. Perhaps also a law against aborting a fetus on a whim (perhaps have a 5 day waiting period). Laws requiring parental (or spousal) consent might sound good but are likely to run up against significant objections, including the real possibility of rape and incest and unacceptable familial pressure. The final list will be difficult to determine and absent a final list, jurisdictions may adopt differing lists (as SCOTUS allows).

Importantly, the jurisdiction issue is more complicated than some recognize. Philosophers have long debated what would give a government legitimate jurisdiction over a group of people. I won’t be able to delve into that here, but will simply assert that I do not believe any of the US state governments is likely to have genuine legitimacy over all people within their borders. For that reason, it strikes me as perfectly acceptable for the federal government or other state governments to aid an abortion-seeker in a state wherein they are unable to get an abortion legally. (For one way this can work, see this interesting story.)

Moralism and Contemporary Politics

People have asked me why I seem so focused on moralism.  There are multiple reasons, including having too much personal experience with people who operate as moralists, but what it really comes down to is that if we take moralism broadly to be a view that we should use the machinery of law to impose a moral view on the jurisdiction, most people in politics today are moralists.  (So, not just a justification of a specific law, but of the whole system of law.  A loss of viewpoint neutrality.)

On the right, we we have what are called “common good constitutionalists” or “common good conservatives” who basically say we should interpret the Constitution of the United States of America in such a way that will get us the common good of society.  Of course, what they mean by “the common good” follows from their conservative beliefs (see Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermuele).  

On the left, you see basically the same thing without the claim made explicit. You have people pushing a particular view about how to guarantee equality and freedom in society, meaning a particular view about how society should be set up—and of course, that is a way meant to attain their view of the common good.

Of course those on the left and those on the right disagree about what the common good is.  This is what “culture clashes” are. So, for an obvious example, the two camps here would take opposing sides with regard to today’s SCOTUS decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization.  One side (or at least some on that side) thinks all human life is deserving of the same basic respect as all other human life; the other thinks women deserve the respect that would enable them to control their own lives.

Both sides seem to believe that the machinery of the state—the law—should be used to make society moral, given their own (competing) views about what that entails.   (And we are likely to see this play out from SCOTUS fairly quickly.)

Importantly, libertarians are different.  We believe that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit subject only to the restriction that they don’t wrongfully harm others.  Some might say that this is a form of moralism as well—one wherein the view of morality is simply thinner than those of the other two views.  Perhaps that is right, but consider how it plays out.  Those on the left would want to force people to recognize and work for equal rights for women and to pay for programs meant to help with that.  Those on the right want to force women to carry pregnancies to term.  Meanwhile, libertarians want to force people not to force people to do anything.  That last seems obviously better.

Why ‘ProSocial Libertarians’?

I am wary of isms and labels. They are used too often by too many as excuses to stop thinking. Worse, no doubt aware of the human tendency to avoid ideas that challenge our preconceptions, unscrupulous advocates on all sides use labels such as ‘socialism’ or ‘far right’ to pillory views with which they disagree, in effect saying ‘These ideas are beyond the pale. You can ignore them.’ This, in turn, further discourages people from venturing outside the safety of their thought bubbles and trying to understand why others might hold different views. 

Although I am quite sensitive to this thought-stultifying use of labels — having taught critical thinking for years — I am sure I am not the only person for whom effectively labeling something as beyond the pale piques one’s curiosity instead of squelching it. (This, by the way, is the main reason — along with my name — that I first read Ayn Rand.) So, fortunately, there are also people who want to be challenged and seek out ideas that put their preconceptions under strain. If you fall into this group, you should enjoy this blog.

Despite the risks that labels bring, we cannot manage without them. To minimize the risks, we should acknowledge that labels are only a starting point for discussion and that the meaning of any politically interesting terms will need to be clarified on an ongoing basis. 

In light of all this, if I had to choose a label that best captures my political orientation, that label would be ‘libertarian’. I found it dismaying, then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to see the term ‘libertarian’ — as well as related terms like ‘freedom’ — arrogated by a rogue’s gallery of activists and politicians who have been called — with some justification —antisocial. 

What was dismaying was that these so-called ‘libertarians’ were acting out an old, muddleheaded conception of libertarianism that many people could (wrongly) take as reason to dismiss libertarian ideas as unworthy of serious consideration. For, according to this old, muddleheaded conception, libertarians just _are_ antisocial. Like Randy Weaver, libertarians on this conception want nothing more than to be left alone and they will happily head to the woods with their guns and family to achieve this end. Properly understood, however, libertarians need not be Randy Weavers. Or, at least, so I believe. (Please note: In no way do I intend for my use of Randy Weaver as an example of an antisocial libertarian to diminish the tragedy and injustice that befell him and his family at the hands of the United States government.)

Given what the honest use of labels requires, I want to be as clear as I can about what I mean by ‘libertarian’ and why being a libertarian involves being prosocial, not antisocial. But there is no such thing as a conceptual dictator, so any work towards understanding libertarianism will, of necessity, be a joint enterprise. Hence, the idea of this blog: a civil forum for exploring what it means to be a libertarian and the ways being a libertarian involves being prosocial. Hence also, our name: ProSocial Libertarians.

Employment, Coercion, and Voting

Sally works for a big corporation.  She works 9 to 5, with a half hour lunch, Monday through Friday.  She often brings work home with her and on Saturdays, she takes a class, hoping it will help her receive a promotion and raise.  On Sundays, she cleans her home and preps for the following week.  This is her schedule every week unless she manages to get a vacation day or two (or if she gets sick)—in which case, work backs up and her return is hard.

Sally does not like her job but there are no other jobs available that she would like.  She wishes she didn’t have to work. Some will say she only takes the job because of coercion. This would be “circumstance-based,” “background,” or “situational” coercion (for discussions, see chapter 7 of Scanlon or chapter 4 of Cohen-Almagor). In this sort of coercion, there is no individual person or clear corporate entity that does anything coercive. There is no one to blame for Sally’s situation and no one to interfere with to help Sally.

Some will insist that what is described is not coercive at all—that without a coercer, there cannot be coercion.  They might also insist that Sally consents to the the employment.  They might even say Sally consents to the social system within which she is employed.  Some of this is true—Sally does, I think, consent to her employment. What about the claim that there is no coercion?

Generally speaking, we think of coercion as one agent, P, acting to get a second agent, Q, to do some action, A, typically by threatening to do something Q does not want to happen (firing Q, harming Q’s relative, etc).  When P does this, it is reasonable to think P is responsible—or at least partly responsible—for Q’s (coerced) actions and that P is subject to justifiable interference.  In Sally’s case, there simply is no P acting to get Sally to keep working.  There are only the facts of the social, political, and economic world which jointly make it such that if Sally does not work, she will not be able to afford to live. The circumstances are what matters and circumstances aren’t agents that do things.

Does this mean it makes no sense to say Sally is coerced?  I’m skeptical.  Sally is not doing as she wants to do.  She acts counter-preferentially because of the way the social, political, and economic world she (and we) inhabit is set up.  While there is no particular agent to blame or interfere with, we can still think there is something unfortunate going on.  If you don’t want to call it coercion, call it shcoercion.  The important point is not one of conceptual analysis but of the morality of the situation.

Some think that the situation is not merely unfortunate but that it is so unjust we ought to change things in the political and economic order so that Sally (and the rest of us) would not be coerced (or shcoerced) by circumstances to work a particular job.  Marxists and others on the left might even say the situation is so unjust that we ought to have the government act to make it such that Sally would not have to work at all.  (See, for example, Van Parijs.)

While I would deny that the world should be set up in such a way that anyone can choose not to work at all if they prefer that, it seems clear that a situation where many people have to work at jobs they don’t like at all is at least unfortunate. (I’m also OK with saying it is coercive or shcoercive, but would note that not all coercion or shcoercion is bad).

A world in which most people work is good for all of us.  A world in which many have to work at jobs they don’t like is, obviously, less good than one in which all of us could work at jobs we like.  This is not a Marxist or socialist claim.  Indeed, I believe the most reasonable way to actualize such a situation—where all or most can work at jobs they like—is to move far more toward a free market (or freed market—see, for example, Carson) than we have.  I’ll keep further thoughts about that for a possible future post. 

In the meantime, here’s what really strikes me as odd: the same people that think they are unjustly coerced into working will often also say that voting in a democratic system—including a democratic system like ours—is indication of consent to the system.  This strikes me as completely incongruous with the view that they are coerced into working.  I didn’t have any part in making our democratic system and I deny that when I vote within that system, I am thereby consenting to it.  I vote, when I do, thinking “I wish we had a better system, but I want to vote now even though I am participating in what seems to me a clearly illegitimate system.”  No one asked for my consent to a two party system.  Or a system within which the majority can ruin the lives of a minority.  Perhaps this system is less coercive than the employment system—but if so, its because I can choose simply not to vote at all.  I’m not, that is, coerced into voting.  I am, though, coerced into voting in a bad system if I wish to vote at all.  Its not like I can go out and vote in a good system—that option is not possible for me.

If it’s true that others made impossible the option of Sally not working at all—or not working at all given the system we live in (I doubt it)—then the coercion there would be on par with the coercion that leaves me only able to vote in what seems to me an illegitimate system. It strikes me as more likely that it is circumstance-based coercion (or shcoercion) in both cases. In both cases, I think, there is no specific agent to blame or interfere with. In neither case does this mean we should rest comfortable with the social-political-economic order. If we ought to think of changing things for people like Sally, we ought to think of changing things for people like me. But many people seem to think Sally is treated unjustly and I am not. Why? That is, why do people believe that voting in a system they had no part in making constitutes consent to that system but working for an employer in a system they had no part in making does not?

Community, Selfish Miscreants, and Civil Discourse

In my last post, I discussed the paradox of community. Recently, I was reminded of one standard way that paradox is ignored and debates within communities are badly framed.  Its worth considering this as a way not to proceed if one wants to improve civil discourse.

Typically, one of the parties in a dispute about the way the community should move—and this could be newcomers or long time members, though it’s more likely to be the latter simply because they likely have some cohesiveness as a group—is to claim they represent the overall community while the other side is simply selfishly representing themselves.  The dialogue might be explicitly put in terms of those who are selfish and those who are selfless or in terms of those interested only in themselves and those interested in the community as a whole. 

Here is an example: One group might say they are seeking to add a pool to the community (at the expense of all community members) because it would be good for the community as a whole, giving community members a location and activity in which to foster discussion which is good for encouraging community (by strengthening the relationships of community members) while also (of course) providing a form of exercise to keep community members healthy. Advocates of the pool might then say they’ve talked to many of the others in the community who also want the pool and so those who advocate for the pool are really the “we” while those arguing against the pool are selfishly concerned only with their own finances and not with the health of their community members or the community itself. 

The pool issue is thus framed as one between those concerned with “we, the community” and those concerned with “the me”—anyone arguing against the pool is portrayed as being selfishly concerned only with their own interests, unable to suppress their selfishness for the greater good of the “we” that is the whole community. They don’t even understand that as part of the “we,” getting the pool would be good for them! This, of course, is nonsense. (See Isaiah Berlin’s statement about “positive liberty” on pages 22-24 here.)

Consider a different way the issue might have been framed if those opposing the pool started the discussion.  They would insist they have the community’s interests at heart, worried that the added expense will be hard on community members, that some may genuinely fear a pool (perhaps a sibling drowned in in a pool), and that all community members will have additional liability, not merely financial, moving forward.  In short, on their view, the addition of a pool puts a strain on community members, and thereby strains the community.  They then insist that those advocating for a pool are selfish, interested in something only a few swimmers will benefit from, while all share the costs.  

Again, the pool issue is framed as one between those concerned with “we, the community” and those concerned with “the me”—this time, anyone arguing for the pool is portrayed as being selfishly concerned only with their own interests, unable to suppress their selfishness for the greater good of the “we” that is the whole community. They don’t even understand that as part of the “we,” not getting a pool would be good for them!  This, of course, is again nonsense.

In both scenarios—one where pool advocates control the terms of debate and one where anti-pool folks control the terms of the debate—the other side Is said to be selfish, each on that side only concerned with the “I.”  The possibility that they are genuinely concerned with the entire community is disregarded in the normal Orwellian move to use language to one’s advantage regardless of truth. (If it’s old-timers arguing for one side, they might even try to “explain”—Orwell style—that those arguing against it are newcomers who don’t understand the importance of the “we” in this community because they are still embedded in the “me” culture.  They may even believe this.)*

This way of engaging in discourse with others—whether in a small community or a large polity—is misguided at best.  Once again, what we need is open and honest discourse where all realize that disagreement is possible (even likely) and useful and that those we disagree with can be honest and well meaning.  Insistence on labeling those we disagree with “selfish” is a more likely indication that one is a miscreant than being so labeled.


*For my part, I wish people would get over thinking there was something wrong with being concerned with one’s own interests. If people would really concern themselves with their own interests (and that of their own family and friends), they would spend less time bothering others (see this). They might even be more receptive to open and honest dialogue.

A Trilemma for “Taxation is Theft”-Libertarians

Claiming that taxation is theft is an effective way to signal that you think of yourself as a libertarian of the more radical, uncompromising, and possibly more Rothbard-inspired sort. But are there substantive reasons to endorse the slogan? It is easy to point at differences between taxation and theft, after all: Taxation is widely regarded as legitimate, taxation is expected, institutionalized and to some extent automated, (at least some) taxation is put to good public use, etc. More sophisticated defenders of the “taxation is theft”-slogan will not deny these differences, though; they will concede that theft and taxation aren’t the same in every respect. Instead, they will explain that the fact that taxation is legal is morally irrelevant, and that taxation and theft are thus on equal footing in one important respect: they are both coercive takings of property and as such pro tanto morally wrong (see for example Michael Huemer’s defense of the claim that taxation is theft here and here).

Obviously, legal conventions determine people’s legal property entitlements. But it is less obvious what role legal conventions play for people’s moral property entitlements. In the following, I will try to sketch a trilemma for libertarians who endorse the “taxation is theft”-slogan, arguing that none of the three basic positions one can take on the role of legal conventions supports their cause.

A (pure) conventionalist position is that people’s moral property entitlements are simply determined by whatever legal property entitlements are conveyed by the law. That position is quite implausible in its own right (surely there are at least moral criteria that legal property conventions should meet to be morally justifiable), and of course it doesn’t help to make sense of the “taxation is theft”-slogan. If moral property entitlements were simply determined by legal conventions, then the fact that taxation is legal would imply that what we morally own is what we own post-tax. Obviously, conventionalism is also not a position many libertarians will be drawn into.

An anti-conventionalist position is that people’s moral property entitlements are determined by natural, non-conventional criteria (i.e., principles of just acquisition and just transfer, as in Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice). Legal conventions may at best have a minor role to play in specifying what is left vague and indeterminate in people’s natural property rights. This position lends some support to the “taxation is theft”-slogan: If the only morally relevant role of legal conventions is to carve out the more precise specification of antecedent natural property rights, and if that may be done without taxation, then the fact that taxation is legal is morally irrelevant and all infringements of natural property rights are morally on a par, no matter if it is state agents or non-state agents that engage in them.

The problem, though, is that the anti-conventionalist view arguably implies that almost all of today’s legal property entitlements are morally void (compare Twin Nozick in Loren Lomasky’s article and Matt Zwolinski’s related discussion at Bleeding Heart Libertarians). After all, hardly anyone can claim to own property with a clean record of title transfers going back to a just acquisition from the state of nature. I don’t even know how to look for such a record for all the materials that are built into my laptop, for example. If that means that I don’t really own it, from a moral (natural property rights-) perspective, then taxing my purchase of it can also not count as an infringement of my moral property entitlements. In other words, while the anti-conventionalist position in principle makes sense of equating taxation and theft, it can depict neither taxation nor theft in today’s societies as a violation of moral property entitlements, simply because all (or most) claims to property would be morally suspicious. This is an implication most “taxation is theft”-libertarians will not be willing to endorse.

The most plausible view is a mixed view about the role of legal conventions. On this view, there are moral standards for legal property conventions (they must be something useful for us, after all), but at least when a basic moral threshold is met, then legal conventions do determine pro tanto moral property entitlements. This quite plausibly explains why it is morally wrong to steal even in the non-perfect societies we are living in, where most property titles can’t be proven to have a clean track record going back to an initial acquisition from the state of nature, but where property conventions may well be taken to meet the basic moral threshold, while having considerable room to improve in many respects.

Of course, there is a wide range of views one could take about what exactly the moral standards for legal property conventions are and where the basic moral threshold is to be set. But, just to have some criteria on the table, arguably property rights should be conveyed by well-defined and transparent rules, they should give owners sufficient control over what they own, they should be properly enforced, violations should be properly rectified, and they should be in line with broader moral principles, like, for example, equality before the law. It is also plausible that principles of just acquisition and just transfer should be incorporated into legal conventions, such that, for example, somebody who creates something valuable from something she legally owns should also own the creation (because creating or adding value to something should be taken to ground property entitlements).

But whatever the moral standards for property conventions may be in detail, on the mixed view taxation cannot be equated to theft. The fact that the former is legal, while the latter is not, is of moral relevance. What moral property entitlements people have will depend on legal conventions, at least as long as these meet the basic threshold, and in our societies taxation is part of these legal conventions. What people morally own will thus be what they own post-tax – but not post-theft. Obviously, this should not be confused with an “anything goes” position about taxation; one can evaluate and criticize different tax policies in light of the moral standards property conventions should meet, of course, even after the basic moral threshold is met (see also Andrew J. Cohen’s related discussion at Bleeding Heart Libertarians).

Some libertarians may say that no system of property that includes taxation meets the basic moral threshold (according to their interpretation of it). But if this were so, we would get back to the problems of the anti-conventionalist position. If current legal conventions don’t meet the basic threshold, then neither taxation nor theft will violate moral property entitlements in today’s societies, since current legal conventions would fail to give rise to moral property entitlements. One cannot cherry-pick and accept the moral relevance of current legal conventions when it comes to the property titles they assign, but reject their moral relevance when it comes to taxation.

(Thanks to Andrew J. Cohen for feedback on a draft version).

The Paradox of Community

Conceptually, community is distinct from neighborhood.  A community can be in a neighborhood, but it might instead consist of widespread people who share some commonality (the community of PPE scholars, for example).  A neighborhood, for its part, may merely be a place people live, not knowing those that also live there. 

Take communities to be groups of people bound together by traditions. Traditions are essential to community. They also vary by community. They might be matters of language, religion, commitment to country, behaviors, holidays, heritage, or any number of other things, some requiring more strict abidance by group norms, some requiring less. Traditions necessarily (but, importantly, not always problematically) hold us back, keep us limited—for the simple reason that people are committed to them. When people are committed to one way of doing things, they are resistant to changes to it. A commitment to car culture, for example, makes it less likely that a group would find (or even look for) an alternative means of transportation. (Or accept such if offered. Think of Segways—why aren’t these available for long distance use? or sealed from rain and cold?)

While traditions hold people back, they also provide a foundation for change.  From the security of being able to interact with others in accepted ways, one can develop new ways to do so—and new ways not to do so.  Because they have traditions, communities make it possible to innovate. Innovation, though, can cause the community to change or even disintegrate. Tradition and innovation are symbiotic even while they simultaneously threaten each other.  Call this the paradox of community (it’s at least a significant tension).

The paradox of community—the fact that a community’s traditions make innovation possible while simultaneously trying to prevent innovation (because innovation could bring the end of the tradition)—makes life in community … interesting.

Another fact about communities is that they either grow or die; stasis is illusory. Communities grow as their members change (some join, some exit, some change themselves), innovate, bring about changes to the traditions (adding some, altering others, ending still others). This is why the paradox is so important.

Some within a community can become so committed to a particular tradition(s) of the community that they work to slow the pace of the community’s growth in order to prevent the altering or ending of their favored tradition(s) or the inclusion of others.  They may do this by trying to encourage newcomers to learn and accept the existing traditions of the community or by actively working to create an environment whereby those seeking change are limited. If they succeed too much—preventing any change in the community’s traditions—they attain stagnation rather than stasis.  This is because absence of change in a community (as for an individual person or any animal) brings the end of the community.  It means no new members–and with no new members, it dies as it’s members die.  Change—innovation—is essential to community.

Of course, new people may attempt to join the community. When they do, they would bring their own histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals. They could (and perhaps should) learn about the community’s ways of doing things. That is consistent with their bringing their own ways of doings (and their histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals). It is consistent, that is, with change. But if those within the community seek to limit change, they may try instead to indoctrinate the newcomers into the community’s traditions so that they live as those in the community now live, rather than bringing anything different. Indoctrination thus treats newcomers as having nothing of their own to contribute, as if their histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals have no place in the community. Newcomers would thus not be allowed to bring their ideas and preferences into the community’s traditions–those traditions would not be allowed to change. Such newcomers are, then, likely to exit the community. (Notice that this does not mean they physically move away or drop their official membership–remember, communities are not the same as neighborhoods (or associations)).

To build community, change must be permitted. This means that all in the community must listen to each other, open to hearing new things that might be incorporated into the web of community activity and the traditions that shape them. This does not mean jettisoning everything previously held dear, but it does mean being open to the possibility of doing so (likely not all at once). Long time members of the community can teach newer members how things were or are done, but that counts no more than what newer members bring to the table. Importantly, those whose ideas are rejected out of hand have no reason to participate in the community. Ignoring this–thinking that all learning here is in one direction–will simply give rise to factions, splintering what was a community, killing it while perhaps giving birth to new, smaller, communities as those factions continue to grow.

So, both tradition and innovation are essential to community. What this means, in part, is that while change is necessary, the pace of change may be too much for some people within a community, at least those committed to one or more of its traditions. Still change can’t be stopped; a successful attempt to stop it, kills the community. The question for those in a community is thus whether their favored tradition(s) and it’s (or their) history are more important than the community itself. To side with a tradition is to side with those no longer present; to side with community is to side with those currently constituting the community—including those who wish to see change.

Of course, those siding with a tradition may take that tradition to have independent value and thus to be worth protecting. They may take this to be a principled defense of preventing change in the community. It is not. The community from which a defended tradition stems, like all communities, must be able to change. (Again, stagnation means death.) Indeed, all surviving communities have what can reasonably be called traditions of change–ways that change takes place. So when defenders of one tradition seek to prevent change, they are pitting one part of the community and its traditions against another and claiming that one of the traditions should be defended at the cost of another—their favored tradition at the cost of the community’s tradition of change. That, though, is just a preference. One cannot just assume that one favored tradition is more valuable than another. After all, those seeking change may rightly claim to be defending a tradition of change within the community.

Putting the last point differently, those seeking change are defending the community as the community currently is and is growing with its current members and their preferences. Those seeking to prevent change, by contrast, are defending only part of the community—some specific tradition(s) they happen to prefer—and, by seeking stagnation, killing the community.

Lest I be thought too critical of defenders of particular traditions, I should note that I do not think there is a good principled reason for either protecting particular traditions or for changing or jettisoning them. In either case, on my view, further considerations are necessary. What we need to determine, on my view, is when interference is justifiably permitted–what principles of interference we ought to accept rather than simply what traditions we happen to prefer. (I discuss some such considerations here and in my 2014.)

Against Busybody Moves to Limit Liberty


I grew up in a fairly densely populated but suburban area, primarily with single family homes and duplexes. Each home had a yard, perhaps 30 feet by 75, mostly fenced in. We knew all of our neighbors on the block—say a dozen homes on each side—and a few on surrounding blocks. Many moved there from more crowded, mostly urban areas. Some people had vegetable gardens in their back yards, most did not. (Almost) no one had farm animals. I am not sure if there were any laws prohibiting such. A neighbor on the next block over (but only 4 houses away from us), had chickens in their yard. Chickens! For some, this was scandalous. The idea that someone might keep live chickens in their yard in our neighborhood was just appalling to them. And they did their best to rid the neighborhood of this apparently appalling pox on mankind. I no longer recall if they succeeded—I don’t think they did, but I may be wrong.

To be honest, back then I didn’t think much about those chickens—or those adults seeking to get them out of the neighborhood. Lately, I find myself thinking a lot about such people and the immense variety of things they would prohibit. Of course, some things should be banned—involuntary slavery, for example. Unfortunately, though, the list of things for which there are advocates of prohibition is extremely lengthy. That list includes:

large sodas; alcohol; cigarettes; marijuana, cocaine, other currently illicit drugs; certain books and magazines; curse words and profanity; hateful speech; guns; chickens, pigs, and rabbits (in suburban or urban areas); tall grass; parking on an unpaved space, even on one’s own property; crossing the street against the light, even when no cars anywhere around; non-standard building structures; non-standard colors for homes; homes built less than 30 feet apart; homosexuality; non-monogamous intimate relationships; intimate relationships with more than 2 partners; picking up prescription medications for one’s spouse; working for a wage below some minimum (perhaps a legally enforced minimum, perhaps someone’s idea of a “liveable wage”); grants from corporate donors; and far more.

As noted, some things should be prohibited. Involuntary slavery, murder, and rape are obvious examples. None of the items on the list above are like those three. All three necessarily make use of unconsented-to force against another. (In language I use elsewhere, all necessarily involve the wrongful setting back of one or more person’s interests by another.) None of the other things I’ve named above do that. And yet, there people have proposed banning each. The arguments for banning them usually involve one or more of four rationales. There are, of course, sophisticated arguments for and against each of these; here I just point out a simple problem with each. The four rationales and a simple objection to each are:

(1) The items in question or their uses are bad for the user, reducing their level of well-being. BUT: It’s interesting that those making these claims—for example, that accepting a job for less than a “liveable” or legally minimum wage is bad for you and you thus shouldn’t be allowed to accept it–don’t seem to consider the possibility that they themselves likely do things that might be bad for them. For example, proponents of such bans might work long hours, drink too much alcohol, care too much about the prevailing zeitgeist, etc. Perhaps those things should be banned. More time with family, relaxing, communing with nature, etc, is likely better for you than working long hours after all. It’s not clear why it’s less reasonable to ban comparatively long hours than it is to ban comparatively low wages. Some people, after all, may be quite happy being productive at some task without making alot of money. Proponents of bans for paternalist based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might think something they like is bad for them. (I am not denying that there are objective standards of what is good or bad for someone; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(2) The items in question or their uses are somehow offensive to others. BUT: Again, it’s interesting that those making these claims—for example, that pornography is offensive and should thus be banned–don’t seem to consider the possibility that others might find something they like or do offensive. Indeed, some of us might find the attempt to ban pornography offensive. It’s not clear why it’s less reasonable to think banning pornography is offensive than permitting it. A ban, after all, might make people mistakenly think there is something wrong with nudity or sexuality, essential aspects of being a human person. Proponents of bans for offense based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might find something they like offensive. (Again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of offensiveness; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(3) Banning the items or their use is good for others not using them (even if the items or their use do not offend or harm those others). Robby’s carrying a gun puts others at risk; Jill’s doing meth in the house next door might lower their property value. BUT: It’s not clear how much risk is usually present in these sorts of cases or why someone else’s benefit justifies interference with Robby or Jill. Of course, if the risk of gun carrying is sufficiently high, banning it would really be about protecting others from harm, not merely benefitting them–and that, I agree, would be a good reason to prohibit something. But while reducing the risk of a harm is a benefit, the claim here is only about benefiting someone, not reducing the risk of a harm. If I gift you $1000, I benefit you, but not gifting you the $1000 is not harming you. Banning meth in my neighborhood may well benefit me in terms of raising my property values—something I am very happy to see happen. But does my preference for increased property values justify interfering with Jill’s use of meth? Would it justify punishing Sally for keeping her yard messy? Banning Sheila’s use of an old, falling apart car? All of those things—visible meth use, messy yards, and junker cars— would reduce property values in a neighborhood. And again, proponents of interference with some to benefit others don’t seem to recognize that there are lots of ways to interfere with them–the proponents of interference--to help others. Perhaps they could be forced to teach at a local school, pay higher taxes, clean up messy yards, help out at addiction clinics, fix up cars. (And again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of benefit; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(4) The items in question (or their uses) are themselves immoral. (I’ve written about this here before; e.g., see this, this, and this.) BUT: Arguments for such immorality are usually not forthcoming and of course, proponents of these claims of immorality never consider the possibility that their interference with the way other people choose to live their lives is itself immoral. It’s precisely, of course, the sort of problem solved in Loving v Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges. Thankfully, we no longer abide by the wishes of those who would ban interracial or same sex marriage. The busybodies that wanted to interfere with such were defeated. If only we could defeat the rest of the busybodies wishing to interfere in the lives of their neighbors. Again, proponents of bans for morality based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might find something they like immoral. While some think a marriage of 3 or more people is immoral, others think that heteronormative marriage is immoral. While some think cocaine and meth use are immoral, some think alcohol use is immoral. Some of us think banning any of these is immoral. (And again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of morality; I am denying such claims are usually accompanied with good arguments about such, or that they would justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

As suggested, I think the only good reason to ban something is that it is itself harmful or used to cause harm. But it’s not enough merely to assert that something (guns, alcohol, what have you) causes harm. We need—and often don’t get—clear evidence of the harms discussed and why/how they are necessarily connected to the items for which a ban is sought.

So why are attempts to prohibit things so frequent (and too often successful)? It seems clear enough that the proponents of bans that get attention are simply good at working other people into a frenzy to join their crusade, whether the crusade be for good or bad (though it’s always claimed to be for good). Such people, it seems to me, rather enjoy imposing their desires on others–either because they are not satisfied with the degree of control they have over their own life (perhaps it is not enough) or because they are not satisfied with having control only over their own life (perhaps its too much!). It is a desire for power over others rather than a desire for power to live ones life as one wishes that seems to drive these people. We might do well to figure out how to decrease the occurrence of such a desire. (Even if not prohibiting it!)

Moralism and Busybodies: From Community to Police State

In previous posts (for example, here), I have discussed what seems to me an extremely worrisome form of legal moralism wherein people essentially invoke “community” as a moral good in order to instantiate what they want regardless of what others in their supposed communities prefer.  Put differently, they think interference with your activities is warranted simply to maintain or promote the existence of a community they value, whether or not you or anyone else values the sort of community they do.  They might want a neighborhood community where all of the houses are painted the same color or that have the same flowers in front, for examples.  Should you want a different color paint or different type of flower, it’s too bad for you.  These are examples you might hear of in a Homeowners or Condo Association, and are fairly insignificant.  Indeed, in an HOA or a COA, where the rules are in the legal documents, I’d suggest there is no problem at all—because living in an HOA or a COA entails voluntary agreement to the terms of those documents.

These sorts of rules, though, might exist in neighborhoods lacking such an agreement.  Sometimes neighbors simply pressure each other to not use some paint colors, for example, in order to prevent reductions in property values.  While annoying, even these aren’t the sorts of problems I really worry about—perhaps because the claims involved aren’t—and aren’t meant to be—moral claims.  When the same dynamics involve moral claims, the intensity of demands and thus disagreements are often worse.

The general problem is what we euphemistically call “busy bodies.”*  These are people who think they should not only pay attention to your life, but also think they should tell you what to do.  Often, such people mean well.  They are simply trying to help.  Some busybodies cross a line, however, by not merely offering advise but demanding your compliance.  They might demand you not paint your house a certain way, for example, explaining that it will hurt property values and then adding that if you did it anyway, you would be failing in your obligations to your neighbors (see this for a related amusing story).  In what such obligations are grounded, though, they don’t say. 

This is still a minor issue—it’s just painting your house.  But busybodies might also come and tell you how to discipline your child—and again, while this can be done in a friendly “here’s some advice, take it or leave it” way, it can also be done as a demand based in some unstated moral view.  They might insist, for example, that your child not be allowed to play in the woods, be left alone, climb a wall, or ride a specific type of bike.  They might say “if you do allow those things, you are a bad parent; good parents don’t behave that way.”  (Of course, about some things they may well be right.)

Make no mistake, some people have no problem interfering with the lives of others; some are naturally interventionist. They think they know how other people should live. They think they know how you and I should live. And, very importantly, they believe the government should make us do what they think we should do and disallow us doing what they think we should not.  Here’s where we get the biggest problems—problems that arise from further steps along a path to authoritarianism.  From encouraging people to maintain their homes for simple practical reasons or offering (even undesired) parenting advise, to claiming we have duties to follow such advice, to seeking governmental power to force compliance, we have a spectrum of activities that are worrisome. 

To make the point clear, consider that some people believe smoking tobacco cigarettes—perhaps especially menthol flavored—is not only bad for you, but also (perhaps for that reason) immoral.  And that some people (President Biden) are perfectly happy to use government power to enforce your compliance—all for your own good.  The U.S. FDA’s stance on this is clear:

Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives … With these actions, the FDA will help … address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products,” said Acting FDA Commissioner J. Woodcock, M.D.

Should any of us, including people in communities of color, low-income populations, or amongst LGBTQ+ individuals, think the benefits of smoking outweigh the costs for us, its too bad for us.  The busybodies are perfectly willing to use their power to bully the rest of us.  Such people do not mind sending police to arrest you should you try to sell single cigarettes, sell any without a license you’ve paid them for, or even for smoking one in your own home.  They will also not mind putting you in prison for failing to comply—or killing you on a street corner. (See this, if the story does not sound familiar.)

We should not think, though, that this is just about government.  Busybodies are often willing to use any sort of organization to make others comply with their desires. They are more than willing to vote to limit your ability to do what you want, of course.  But they are also quite willing to work to impose such restrictions in the workplace or neighborhood. They have no compunction against encouraging the boss to set policies that limit your ability to do what you want. They don’t mind petitioning a business to stop performing a service you enjoy or to stop selling a product you like.  They certainly don’t mind having the government make activities you enjoy illegal or limited.  What they seek is a society they like, regardless of what you or anyone else likes.  If some people must be imprisoned or killed for the cause, they seem to think that is simply a cost of attaining a good community or society. 

*See Antony Davies and James Harrigan’s Cooperation and Coercion: How Busybodies Became Busybullies and What that Means for Economics and Politics for more on the general problem.

Moralism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics

In a previous post, I began discussing moralism, which I take to be a commitment to the view that some acts must be forbidden, socially or legally, because they are (a) judged wrong by the general populace, (b) in some way opposed to the continued survival of the community qua a somehow unified group (I had said “general populace,” but this is clearer), or (c) simply immoral even if no one is hurt by them.

I have been seeing, once again, posts on social media about the loss of national identity (and praise for a few places that seem to still have such). My response to such posts is always the same: why would anyone value a national identity? That is the same response I have to those who seem to identify with a political party, ideology, racial or cultural groups, groups with the same sexual preferences, etc. I always wonder why anyone thinks that a group has any independent substantive value rather than just being a set of people that happen to share something in common.

Identifying with a group could just be recognizing that one has something in common with others (those also in the group), but it—or “taking a group identity”—has become something more. It is, we might say, an entryway into valuing that group for its own sake—that is, it’s the starting point to thinking of the group as having some value above and beyond the value of the individuals in the group. Nationalism is no exception—the whole point (it seems to me) is to encourage people to think of the nation as an entity of moral value all its own. Granted, that value is meant to be somehow good for the people within the nation, but how that works is mysterious. (But not to the point here.)

What do those who bemoan a loss of national identity (or who seek to revive such) want? They want to convince others to live as they think all ought to live. Or at least how all who live here ought to live. This looks like the first sort of moralism—they believe those who act differently are somehow acting wrongly. But what is it that they do wrong? So far as I can tell, it is nothing more than the refusal to live as the advocates of nationalism want.

Why are advocates of nationalism so concerned about people acting differently? This is where the second sort of moralism comes back in: what nationalists want is to be assured their group will survive; they thus fear anyone not going along with them as it means their national group does not have the allegiance of everyone and is thus threatened. It is the survival of the group that matters, after all, not the survival of the individuals within the group.

To be clear, so far as I can tell, nationalism is no different from any other form of political identity. Each group wants all of its members to “fall in” and be what the group is self-portrayed as. Those who act differently or in any way challenge the supposed identity of the whole are a problem to be dealt with, perhaps excised from the group, excommunicated, shunned, cancelled, or deported; perhaps (the topic for a future post) jailed or killed. Here I note only that I prefer the liberal ideal: I like that we live in a society with people who have different backgrounds, beliefs, religions, heritages, skill sets, etc. 1000 flowers blooming is far more attractive than 1000 clones.