Category Archives: Toleration

Continue to give the gift of questioning in the New Year! 

I was recently on C-Span discussing civil discourse, was on the Newstalk STL radio show discussing it, and was interviewed for a piece posted at MLive. I thought I’d follow those up with a couple of posts encouraging civil discourse over the holidays. Here’s the second.

The gift giving holiday season is ending.  My hope, though, is that we can nonetheless use the spirit of the holidays to the advantage of the polity by continuing to give each other the gift of questioning in the New Year.  Questioning each other and ourselves is always useful, perhaps especially in politics.  

Fortunately (and despite fears), the midterm elections of 2022 went well.  There were very few worries raised about election integrity and those falsely pressing claims about past problems with election integrity mostly found themselves on the losing end of elections.  While this is great news, we shouldn’t rush to conclude that democracy is now secure.  We need, and should expect, more from ourselves than we’ve been giving.  In particular, we need more from those we disagree with, whether they be family members, friends, neighbors, or people we know in the cyberspace of social media.  And they need more from us.  I hope more people can work on this and begin to satisfy those needs and, in the process, perhaps, give the world the gift ofsecure democracy.

Consider the sort of vehement disagreements we often hear about (or take part in) about who the best candidate is for any particular post.  These are not new.  We’ve always had them and likely always will.  What matters is that we not devolve into thinking that the candidate we favor is ideal, completely above partisanship, ideology, and plain self-interestedness, while the candidate we oppose is partisan, ideological, self-interested, and out to destroy our lives.  To pretend that “our candidate” is as kind as Ol’ St. Nick or that “their candidate” is as terrible as Scrooge himself would not be in the spirit of the holidays.  

Those seeking our votes for political office usually have their own interests in mind.  As economist James Buchanan pointed out, there is a symmetry of motivations between politicians and those in business (or any other area).  Recognizing this is important.  It means, for example, that a politician that promises something that seems to be against her own interests is deserving of our skepticism.  Admitting that skepticism to each other—both to those who vote like us and those who do not—might be the single most important gift citizens in a democracy can give one another.  This questioning—especially of own political parties—would reduce political rancor and polarization, promote more informed voting, and perhaps get us better political leaders.

Given the symmetry of motivations between business people and politicians, we should consider a standard sort of constraint we impose on business people: the expectation of honesty.  It must apply to politicians as well as anyone.  At a minimum, after all, we want our elected officials to be honest.

We have to expect that those seeking office will work to get votes and we have to realize this incentive might discourage honesty.  We should, nonetheless, expect candidates for office to be honest in the process of campaigning and, if they win, while in office.  We should expect them not to intentionally seek to deceive. We should expect them to answer any questions put to them forthrightly.  (At least with regard to any questions relevant to the post to which they seek election.)  If they are caught failing in this regard, they should lose our support.  We should not vote for them, even if they are members of the party to which we claim some form of allegiance.  Voting for the polity, rather than voting for your party, is another gift of and to our democratic polity.

That we should not vote for a member of the party to which we claim some allegiance requires that we reject identifying ourselves as member of that party.  As soon as a member of “our” party (or other group) shows that he or she is not worthy of our trust, we ought not support them.  We ought to care more about the values of honesty and trustworthiness—as well as the polity as a whole—than we do about party affiliation.  

Consider committing to this as a New Year’s Resolution: I will question my own party as much as the other party and vote for polity over party.  There will be times, of course, that voting for the polity will be voting for your party.  At times, your party will have the better candidate.  To think it always has the better candidate, however, would stretch credulity as much as thinking Santa lives in a Chanukah menorah under the sea.  

I realize that putting honesty, trustworthiness, and the polity above party affiliation is a hard sell in our current political climate.  To see that it is not unreasonable, consider two intraparty conflicts.  

Reagan Republicans would likely endorse the recently proposed Federal American Dream Downpayment Act, which would allow people to start savings accounts with tax exempt funds to be used for a down payment on a home (similar to 529 accounts for college savings).  Many Republicans, however, seem to talk about this as a socialist give away rather than a reduction in taxes to incentivize home buying.  This is an intraparty conflict; the two groups can’t fully identify as the same.

On the other side of the aisle, it is very hard to imagine a Clinton Democrat endorsing anything like the populist economic policies of Bernie Sanders or the economic policies supported by those like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, rooted as they are in “Modern Monetary Theory.”  The details of those views do not matter here.  What matters is that this is another intraparty conflict; the two groups can’t fully identify as the same.

Given those intra-party debates, its clearly possible to cleave space for individuals to accept parts of a party’s platform while questioning and even rejecting other parts.  Doing that is part and parcel of the openness to discourse—disagreement!—that I seek to encourage.  We can encourage this by being willing to question each other, the candidates we are considering, and the platforms of the parties, especially our own.  If we can do this, we can more honestly evaluate candidates and policies from all parties.  That would help reduce polarization.  We would no longer adhere to a party line, endorsing a candidate merely so that “our party”—our team—can be in control.  We would be looking instead for what is the best way forward. There is no better gift to give each other in these polarized times.

I urge everyone to make a New Year’s Resolution to question their party as much as the other party and vote for polity over party.

Gifts of Discomfort for the Holidays

I was recently on C-Span discussing civil discourse and today a piece I was interviewed for was posted at MLive. I thought I’d follow those up with a couple of posts encouraging civil discourse over the holidays. Here’s the first.

Years ago, the parents of my college girlfriend gave me a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as a Christmas present.  They clearly thought (probably correctly) that I was not very good at talking with people.  That was a long time ago, but it was important.  I think my girlfriend thought (probably correctly) that I was insulted.  In giving me that book as a gift, they made me uncomfortable, making me think more about some of my shortcomings.  The thing is, it helped me.  So, thanks to them. 

In being willing to give me such a gift—a gift of discomfort—they helped me become a better person, one (somewhat) better at engaging with others than I had been.  For me, for what it’s worth, this is a continual process and my wife now gives me that gift from time to time as well, helping me see where I can improve when engaging with others.  So, thanks to her.  

Very often, the way we improve is by being uncomfortable.  A second example from my life: in the last year or so, I’ve lost almost 100 pounds.  Why did I work to lose that weight?  Because I was uncomfortable with the increased health risks of being overweight and with and the thought of leaving this world early.

Being uncomfortable can spur us to be better.  Making each other uncomfortable is thus often a gift.

Perhaps what I’ve said so far will sound entirely reasonable.  But the idea that we grow from discomfort is far more important than it leading to better interpersonal engagement or improved health for a few.

Consider what we might call “epistemic discomfort”—the lack of comfort in one’s beliefs.  Epistemic discomfort is often caused by being faced with opposition to one’s beliefs.  When someone goes away to college, for example, they might for the first time meet people from a big city, or from a farming community, or from a different religious or cultural group, or even from a different country.  When you meet people like that you find out that there are a huge number of beliefs that are different from yours—sometimes radically opposed to yours.  When you learn of those beliefs, especially when it’s the first time, it has a way of challenging you and putting you in a position of epistemic discomfort.

Many seem to hate epistemic discomfort and seek to avoid it when possible.  This is true of many college students—who often refuse to disagree with their peers or their professors, choosing instead to self-censor.  This is true in our broader culture as well.  Indeed, many believe it is simply rude to disagree with others.  All of this, I believe, is a mistake.  We should be willing—indeed eager—to express our disagreement with others.  Sometimes we ought even be willing—indeed eager—to express some imagined disagreement with others.  

Providing others disagreement is giving them the gift of discomfort.  It is a way of encouraging them to think more seriously about what they believe.  Often, they will do so and remain committed to what they already believed, finding flaws in the opposing ideas or ways to bolster the ideas they already had.  Often, though, they will realize it was their own ideas that were flawed.  Either way, they will be better off—either having better reason for, and perhaps more of a commitment to, what they already believed or discarding unsupportable beliefs for more supportable beliefs.  

Importantly, the gift of discomfort that we can give to one another is not just a gift for the individuals receiving it.  It is also a gift for the entire polity.  A culture that takes seriously opposition beliefs—a culture that encourages people to express their disagreements—is a culture wherein people do not easily take offense by what others say.  A culture that takes seriously opposition beliefs is a culture of individuals that can argue civilly, without rancor.  It is a culture that can seek and reach political compromise.  It is a culture wherein polarization has no place.  It is a culture where liberal democracy can thrive.

This holiday season, consider giving the gift of discomfort.

Two Syllogisms about Government Action

This post began with an idea of a simple syllogism (A) and possible objections to that syllogism. Ultimately, I came to see that the objections (likely) succeed but that made me realize my core idea was really my standard anti-paternalist view.

(A) The syllogism

1. Government actions entail coercion.

2. Coercion entails that someone is made worse off.

3. A move is Pareto optimal if someone is made better off and no one is made worse off.

4. Government actions cannot be Pareto optimal.

(B) Discussion

I wanted the argument in (A) to be sound. I think it’s not, because premise 2 is (likely) false. Someone might be coerced and yet be better off. How might someone be coerced and yet better off? The intuition behind premise 2 is, after all, straightforward: if you have to coerce me to X its because I didn’t want to X, so when I do X, I am worse off. (I don’t think this entails a completely subjective conception of the good; more on that below.) Put another way, X is against my interests. We might add that most of us have an interest in choosing on our own regardless of what we choose and that interest itself is set back when we are coerced. Nonetheless, it’s a common idea amongst political theorists that one can be coerced and better off.

One standard reason it is suggested that people can be coerced and yet better off is that we (at least some of us) actually want to be coerced, via taxation, to pay to help others and so when we are coerced it is really only superficially coercion. In fact, though, it’s really consensual (or something we would consent to if we thought about it). Those that make such claims add that most of us want to be charitable, but realize that we may fail to be if left to our own devices, so we should be coerced into giving “charity.” (Scare quotes as this is unlike genuine charity, which entails that one gives of one’s own accord to help another.) Typically, the claim is not that we merely want to be coerced individually, but that we want everyone (or everyone who can afford it) to be coerced in the specified way, so as to solve a collective action problem—we want ourselves and others to contribute to the solution to that problem but worry we won’t when given the option. Whether that addition is included or not, the point is that then when we are coerced to provide aid to others, we actually get what we want and so are better off, not worse off. We are better off because we want to live in a world where people are taken care of—where people do not starve, die of easily treated illnesses, are educated, treated justly, etc. I don’t find this persuasive. It would only hold, I assume, for those that have a particular psychological makeup.

A second possibility is that one can be better off even though coerced if compensated. The idea here is that while one is made worse off by the coercion—at least because one is prevented from doing what one would choose (our interest in doing what we wish is thwarted)—but is somehow compensated for the worsening enough to make one better off. There are two general ways this can happen. First, though being taxed would set back one’s interests, the government could provide you a direct benefit that (more than) compensates for the loss. This seems unlikely since the direct benefit provided would require further resources, meaning the government would have to coerce still more people in order to provide the benefit. The problem would thus simply be pushed back a step—are the people coerced to pay for the new benefit also better off even though coerced?

A final (third) possibility is that we can be better off even though coerced, because of (a) the objective component of well-being and (b) indirect benefits. This is plausible: one might be better off because although one was not allowed to choose how to spend one’s money, one received membership in a better, more educated and more just society than one would have otherwise been in. The indirect benefit here is not, at least initially, monetary. There is simply great satisfaction in living in a more educated and just society and though such benefits are not easily quantified, they surely matter. And, we can add, it is likely that a more educated and more just society would be more economically advanced, so the indirect material benefit—measurable—might be quite significant. (Those advocating the first idea above might treat these as things rational agents know and accept, so consent to.) Indeed, we should recognize that people often have subjective interests in things that are bad for them and it’s not unreasonable to think that there are objective interests that matter more. I don’t allow my child to eat only ice cream and cookies even though that may well be what he prefers, for example. Letting him indulge his subjective interests would leave him leading a worse life than he could—as an objective matter.

I tend to think an adequate account of the good must have an objective component like that just roughly articulated. That there is an objective element of well-being and that such an element may be better achieved with coercion than without, however, does not settle the issue. At least, it doesn’t for anyone that rejects paternalism. The core issue, after all, is not whether it is permissible to coerce children (to eat well, rest, attend to their hygiene, do their school work, etc). We are concerned about government coercion of rational adults.

As frequent readers likely realize, I reject paternalism. For a great recent work explaining that rejection, see William Glod’s excellent book Why Its OK To Make Bad Choices. Rejecting paternalism does not entail rejecting the claim that there are objective facts about what makes people better off. It entails only rejecting the use of such facts as a reason to coerce people. Put this to the side.

Given that there is an objective component of well-being and that it is at least possible that government can know what will make people better off (not a small assumption), we should admit that premise 2 is false—coercion can make people better off. This is both because their subjective desires may, if satisfied, make them worse off regardless of anything else and because of indirect benefits that result from the coercion (especially if it solves collective action problems).

Where are we left? Premise 2 is likely false. The syllogism is unsound. Nonetheless, I oppose government paternalism. So…

(C) Another syllogism

1. Government actions entail coercion.

2. If coercion makes the coerced better off, it is permissible

3. Government coercion makes the coerced better off.

4. Government action is permissible.

(D) Discussion

Here, I think, we need to explicitly recognize that one may be better off in one way while being worse off in another—and whether one is better or worse off overall would then be an open question. (This is implicit in both the second and third paths discussed in (C) above.)

When government uses coercion to improve society in the way that the third path in (B) assumes, those coerced are treated disrespectfully. I think that weighs extremely heavily in the final calculus determining permissibility.

The situation is analogous to a parent offering a child a delicious chocolate shake to which they surreptitiously added a vegetable (or medicine) the child hates. If successful, this may well make the child better off, but it does so by treating the child as… a child. This is, we assume, ok when dealing with children, but is not OK—or at least may not be—when dealing with an adult. Not letting an adult make the choice to eat (or not) the vegetable is disrespectful. It treats the adult as a child. In that regard—which I take to be of significant importance—the adult is made worse off.

In a fashion similar to that of tricking the adult to take their medicine, coercing adults to pay for things they do not want to, is disrespectful to the coerced. That the coercion would be in the service of making the world better for them, as well as those directly aided, does not change that. That disrespect weighs so heavy that I am doubtful we can say those coerced are overall better off. We might say that some of them are—presumably those who upon learning of how they and others benefit are comfortable with having been coerced (to whom the first justification in (B) above would appeal). I suspect, however, that some will not be so sanguine. They may well be worse off overall. Government coercion would be impermissible on these grounds.

The second syllogism (C) is, it seems, as unsound (because premise 3 is at least sometimes false) as the first (A). A government action may be Pareto optimal; it may also be unacceptably paternalist and impermissible for that reason.

(E) A final note

Nothing said here, of course, entails a claim that we shouldn’t try to solve collection action problems or try to make people better off. Probably we should. But we should do so by trying to persuade them, rationally, to make choices that will lead them to be better off and, where appropriate, solve the collection action problems that contribute to that.

On immigration

I was recently part of a discussion about immigration that prompted some thoughts. I thought I’d share them.

First, I’ll note that too many people think about immigration as an issue about immigrants alone. That is a mistake. See Chandran Kukathas’s new book, Immigration and Freedom, for a very well worked out argument, but here just note that limits on immigration are essentially limits on us—those of us in the country to whom a potential immigrant wants to come. If you are a US citizen and want to marry someone from outside the US, you’ll have to deal with the government to see about the possibility of that person coming here. You may want to live in the US with this person, but whether you will have the freedom to do so depends on immigration law. Similarly, of course, if you want to form a business partnership with someone from abroad. Or if you want to hire someone from abroad. Your freedom to marry or work with non-citizens is limited by immigration law. That’s really just scratching the surface of the issue, but its enough to show that limits to liberty caused by immigration restrictions can affect any of us.

Some will say that the loss of freedom is a price worth paying—it is, after all, a freedom to do something many will not want to do. (Perhaps failing to fully grasp the truth that a government empowered to stop others from doing what they want is a government empowered to stop you from doing what you want.) It’s true that if we allow too many immigrants to enter a country, they can dramatically alter our lives. (Of course, if this is true of countries, it’s also true of local jurisdictions, but I’ll leave that aside.) If 50 million immigrants from a country with an authoritarian government and an “authoritarian culture” (where everyone prefers living under an authoritarian government) came en masse to a country of 300 million, no matter how liberal the latter country was until then, their arrival may will lead to a change in the culture. (I take the basic idea for this argument from Hrishikesh Joshi’s excellent “For (Some) Immigration Restrictions“—the only thing I remember reading in the last few years that seriously made me doubt my pro-immigration stance.)

This worry about an immigrant group altering a country’s culture rather than being assimilated into it doesn’t seem very powerful in the normal course of American politics—a large enough group (50 million, eg) is unlikely to come in a short enough time span to have the effect. If that is wrong, though, we should ask whether such a group would want to alter their new home. It seems more likely that most people who move to a new place move there thinking it—as it is—has something worth moving for and so would not want to change it.

Some may think that these things are not matters of choice, that people from other cultures are simply different from Americans (or Americans and Europeans, from whom so much of our political culture is derived) and so can’t help themselves. The idea would be that if they were raised in an authoritarian or socialist regime, they can’t stop being authoritarian or socialist at heart. This idea, though, requires an unsubstantiated essentialism: Americans (and perhaps Europeans) are essentially freedom-lovers, individuals willing to do whatever is necessary to get ahead in liberal marketplaces and everyone else is … not. They are essentially authoritarian, socialist, or whatever is the dominant way of living in their culture of origin. Again, though, this claim is unsubstantiated. Indeed, it is contradicted by the millions of immigrants already present in the US (and Europe) who come to adopt the culture of their new homes.

Perhaps a more plausible view is that while culture does not make individual essences, it does causally affect people as a contingent but important matter with lasting effects. The thought would be that though they can adapt, people from other cultures are statistically unlikely to be suited for liberal markets and countries as they are and would likely take too long to change, if they change at all. There may be some truth to this claim, but without further investigation, it seems incomplete. There are, after all, historical and international events that affect people in many ways. Ignoring the history of imperialism and colonialism, for example, is likely to leave a lot out of the discussion. Ignoring these sort of world altering events and processes would basically be to essentialize cultures—failing to recognize that they are what they are due to causal factors and they can also change . Like the essentializing of individuals, this essentializing of cultures is unsubstantiated.

The fact is cultures change. I’d go further and say they either change or they die. They may die slow deaths, but stagnation is death nonetheless. Once this is recognized, much of the rest becomes less significant. We should embrace change and hope it will lead to growth. Indeed, with more people with different backgrounds, skill sets, and beliefs, our markets grow and make us all better off. As our markets grow, so does our culture.

Embrace change.  Embrace pro-immigration policies.

Solidarity and the Speech Rights of the Marginalized

Those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism tend to take free speech seriously. Beyond opposing the state regulation of speech, those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism also tend to favor social norms that are more, rather than less, permissive of different kinds of speech. Recently, however, members of the popular culture have expressed support for social norms that are less permissive of different kinds of speech, specifically for members of marginalized groups. This is evidenced by the growing number of people who are content to deride Black opponents of race-based affirmative action policies as “Uncle Toms” and “Aunt Jemimahs,” as well as by those who are content to lambast pro-life women for being traitors who’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy to hold the views they hold. For the remainder of this post, I will show the problems with a line of argument someone could take to defend these liberty-constraining norms. By doing so, I hope to provide those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism something in the way of a response to those who favor social norms that are punishing toward those members of marginalized groups who express certain controversial views. 

Someone might argue that people, and especially members of the Black community, are permitted to meet the criticisms of race-based affirmative action policies made by a Black conservative with racially charged epithets, threats of ostracism, and ostracism by appealing to the value of solidarity. They might say that in order to overcome the threats of anti-Black racism in liberal society, Black people ought to show a united front. A single Black person alone cannot significantly change how racist their society is, but perhaps all or most Black people can. So all or most Black people should express support for policies and norms that are likely to significantly change how racist their society is. A Black person’s failure to support such policies and norms might be claimed to set back the interests of other Black people, since all or most Black people must show a united front to confront anti-Black racism in society. Alternatively, a Black person’s failure to support such policies and norms might be claimed to be unfair, since other Black people have burdened themselves to the benefit of the Black person in question by engaging in certain kinds of activism but the Black person in question does not likewise burden herself to the benefit of other Black people who have arguably benefited her. 

I draw issue, however, with the claim that members of a marginalized group such as the Black community must show a united front to overcome the oppression they face as group members. It seems that dissident members of marginalized groups have been positively instrumental to the end of overcoming the oppressions that members of these groups face. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois were engaged in debates about what was necessary for Black liberation to be brought about in America. Dubois strongly disagreed with Washington’s views about how Black people bear the brunt of the responsibility for making something of themselves in American society, and wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that “Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched,––criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led,––this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society” (36). As Dubois says, it appears that dissent within marginalized groups about matters that affect group members is crucial to these group members identifying viable means through which to resist the oppression they face. 

We can see this insight at work especially when we consider the cases of Andrew Sullivan and Camille Paglia as dissenting members of the LGBT+ community. In 1989, Andrew Sullivan (a gay, conservative political commentator) published the first national cover story in defense of same-sex marriage legalization in The New Republic. The principles he appealed to in this piece, however, were not those that were embraced by all, or even most, gay people. And in 1990, Camille Paglia (a lesbian academic) published Sexual Personae, a work in which she offers a compelling defense of androgynous gender presentation, albeit by predicating her view on traditionalistic understandings of gender of which members of the LGBT+ community are skeptical. The contributions that both of these thinkers made to public discourse on the matters they wrote about were profound. And if we were content to enact social sanctions against them for being heterodox members of the LGBT+ community, we might find ourselves deprived of the social progress they may have in part been responsible for since they would be deterred from speaking their minds. This, I think, speaks in favor of norms that are more, rather than less, permissive of members of marginalized groups speaking their minds when their views stand in tension with the “consensus” views of their communities. 

Even if it were true that liberation for marginalized people is possible only by getting all or most members of each respective group on the same ideological page, it would not follow that dissenters in these groups do anything wrong by dissenting. Consider a parallel context in which a problem of collective action does not generate obligations for individuals to resolve the problem. It might be true that one of the only ways to put a stop to the atrocities that take place on factory farms, for example, is by getting everyone to adhere to a vegan lifestyle. Still, it would be inappropriate to claim that individuals are obligated to adhere to a vegan lifestyle on these grounds, because any individual’s adherence to a vegan lifestyle will not make a difference to the number of animals being brutally slaughtered on factory farms. Likewise, it would be inappropriate to claim that dissident members of marginalized groups are obligated to suppress their views, because any individual’s choice to suppress their views, at least in the vast majority of cases, will not make a difference for how oppressed other members of their groups are. And if dissident members of marginalized groups have no obligation to suppress their views, the strongest basis for justifying social sanctions against them is unavailable to those who wish to belittle or ostracize these members for expressing their views.
There is obviously much more to be said about these issues. There might, for example, be other lines of argument one could take to justify the claim that members of marginalized groups are obligated to suppress their dissident views. Or, one might be concerned with justifying the claim that dissident members of marginalized groups have moral reasons, rather than a moral obligation, to abstain from expressing their views. I do not have enough space to address these arguments in this post, though I hope to take them up in future posts. Still, I think it is useful and important to know that at least one of the arguments that could be offered to justify less permissive speech norms for members of marginalized groups is unsuccessful.

Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.

About Service To All

Political polarization is a now common phenomenon. Whereas people in the past believed their children should not marry someone of a different race or religion, it now seems that a growing number of people believe their children should not marry someone of a different political party. (See this.) Perhaps this switch is understandable.

Humans tend to be tribal (see Greene) and as the tribal connections based on race, religion, and even ethnicity, have grown weaker, it may be that bonds based on political affiliation have become more important. In any case, we have seen instances where store owners want to refuse service to those who reject their ideological commitments—perhaps only one (mask wearing requirements vs mask wearing prohibitions) and we may see more (Democrat vs Republican). Should store owners be legally permitted to refuse service to those they disagree with on some ideological ground? This is not a new question; it’s an old question simply focused on a new sort of difference.

In the past, we’ve asked whether white store owners should be able to refuse service to people of color, whether heterosexual store owners should be able to refuse service to homosexuals, whether Christian store owners should be able to refuse service to non-Christians. My answer here is the same as my answer to all of those: yes, with a caveat. (NOTE: I am not asking if someone from one group should refuse service to anyone outside their group; I am asking if they should be legally allowed to. In my view, it is frequently the case that people ought to be legally allowed to do things they ought not do.)

My basic view is that in denying a person service, the store owner is not essentially doing anything to the individual and so cannot be said to be harming them. I won’t press that point though. It is sufficient that if it is harming them, it does so without violating their rights or otherwise wronging them (it may be stupid or misguided; I suspect that for many refusing service to someone of a particular group, it is less about those others and more about their desire to live their own life as they think they should).

Absent wrongful harm I do not think interference—e.g., to require the store owner provide the service—is permissible. Putting this differently, my basic view is that one needs an argument to show that a business-owner’s refusing to serve a particular customer wrongfully harms that customer if one wants to override the presumption of liberty that the store owner has to run her store as she wishes. While I suspect such weighty arguments are rare, I do think they can be made in certain instances. For example, if all of the grocery stores in a given area refused to sell to someone, it would likely be a clear and wrongful harm to that individual (especially if, as in the relevant historical case, those being denied service had no recourse). A single store doing so, by contrast, is unlikely to hurt the person (or at least not in anything but a de minimis way).

I imagine that some would suggest that there is always a wrongful harm here in the form of a dignatarian harm—i.e., a harm to the individual’s dignity—perhaps especially if the refusal is based on the individual’s race, religion, or ideology. Pointing to a dignatarian harm, of course, does not suggest there are no other harms (causing someone to starve by refusing them service, for example, is an obvious harm; plausibly causing them to have to travel a great distance for service would as well). Here, though, I am assuming there are no other harms at issue—if there are (and they are not de minimis), interference may well be warranted. I am skeptical, though, of the likelihood of dignatarian harms being caused by a store owner refusing service to someone—at least absent structural issues. If 99 of 100 stores of the relevant type are willing to serve the individual, why would a single outlier cause a harm to the person’s dignity? Where I live, there are (I think) six chain grocery stores. It’s hard to believe that the owners or employees of the four I never enter have their dignity harmed by my withholding my utilizing of their businesses. If you think this is only because they are corporate owned, I will add that a bit further away there are several family owned grocery stores and none of them seem to have their dignity harmed by my choice either.

Some might suggest there is a difference between store owners and customers that is somehow relevant. Perhaps so. The only difference I can think of (actually, I didn’t think of it myself!) is that the customer is (or might be) engaging in the transaction to get something needed, while the storeowner is only getting money. The customer is thus supposedly at the mercy of the storeowner in a way that the reverse is not true. I do not think this difference is real. After all, the store owner is looking to get money from the transaction so that they can pay for the things they need. If all stores refuse to serve a particular person, that person will suffer; if everyone refuses to buy from a particular store, that store owner will suffer. Again, so long as the customer can go elsewhere for what they need, I think there is little cause for concern. (Again, if there are no competing storeowners willing or able to do business with the customer, the situation may be different.)

I am not sure what other relevant difference there might be between store owners and customers. Surely, if I intentionally and loudly boycott a particular store, broadcasting my complaints about the store—perhaps truthfully talking about the incompetent owner and workers—the store owner could plausibly have their dignity harmed. If, though, I merely refuse to buy from them without broadcasting my claims (perhaps add that my claims would be neither defamatory nor otherwise tortious), it is hard to believe my refusal to buy from them wrongly causes them a harm. (Indeed, it’s hard to take seriously the claim that I have done anything to them at all.). Merely refusing to sell to someone seems to be the same. No harm to dignity seems plausible. (Again, mass or universal refusal or legal inability to sell to members of a group—and mass or universal refusal or legal inability to buy from members of a group—may be different.)

I’ll end by being clear that I do not see any reason to deny that there are real dignatarian harms. In a theocratic society where women are denied the rights to vote, to own property, to work outside the home, etc, it seems entirely reasonable to think there is a wrongful setback to their interest in their own personal dignity. Such harms would plausibly be independent of physical, financial, or even psychological harms. These would be harms even to women who were happy in the society, well treated, and financially, physically, and psychologically secure. Similarly, as already indicated, if all storeowners were united—or forced—to withhold service to some group of individuals there would be plausible dignatarian harm. But if we are talking of an individual store owner refusing service to such a group, it seems implausible.

Thanks to Payden Alder for getting me thinking about this stuff again and to Jim Taggart, Connor Kianpour, and Andrew I. Cohen for comments on a draft. (Connor gave the possible objection about a difference between storeowners and customers.)

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.)

Vaccines, Science, Judgement, & Discourse

My very first entry into this blog—back on July 2, 2020—was about wearing face coverings because of Covid. That was fairly early into the pandemic, but I think the post has aged very well and I still stand by it.  It seems clear that when there are many cases of a serious new infection, people should wear masks if they go into an enclosed space with lots of unknown others. I also think, though, that it would be wrong to have government mandates requiring that people wear masks (except in places, like nursing homes, where the occupants would be at a known and significant risk) and that private businesses should decide the policy for their brick and mortar operations, just as individuals should decide the policy for their homes.  There is nothing inconsistent in any of that.

Similarly, it seems to me that everybody who can, should want to be inoculated against serious infections (having had the actual infection is likely sufficient). Again, that doesn’t mean that it should be government mandated. (I’m so pro-choice, I think people should be able to choose things that are bad and foolish; I don’t think they should be able to choose things that clearly cause harms to others, but neither the vaccine nor its rejection by an individual does that, so far as I can tell.) We shouldn’t need government mandates to encourage us to follow the science.  So let’s discuss that.  

Acetylsalicylic Acid alleviates headaches, fevers, and other pains.  I don’t know how that works.  Here’s a guess: the acid kills the nerves that are firing.  I actually doubt there is any accuracy in that guess at all, but it doesn’t matter.  I don’t need to know how aspirin works.  I know it works and is generally safe so I use it. How do I know this?  It’s been well tested, both by scientists and by tremendous numbers of people throughout the world.

Now, I actually think I have a better sense of how vaccines work than how aspirin works, though I doubt that holds for the new mRNA vaccines and I realize I could be wrong.  Again it doesn’t really matter.  I’ll use them nonetheless—and for the same reason. The fact is that most of the time, most or all of us simply trust in science.  We use elevators, escalators, cars, planes, trains, clothing with new-fangled fabrics, shoes with new-fangled rubber, foods with all sorts of odd new additives, etc.—all of which were developed with science.  And we don’t usually let that bother us.  

What seems to me foolish in standard vaccine refusal is roughly the same as what seems foolish to me in opposition to using the insecticide DEET in areas where mosquitoes carry malaria, which kills many people. It’s true that the DEET causes some significant problems, but it is unlikely that those problems are worse than the many deaths that would result without it.  This seems clear just based on historical use of the chemical. Similarly, vaccines may cause some problems but the (recent) historical use suggests pretty clearly that they save lives.

Of course, there are always mistakes.  Science is constantly evolving—it is more of a process, after all, than a single state of knowledge.  Scientists make mistakes.  Worse, sometimes scientists bend to their desires and sometimes industries have enough financial power to change the way science is presented. (Looking at you, sugar Industry!) Given that and a personal distrust of government, I certainly understand when people want to wait for evidence to settle.

A drug or other scientific advancement used too early may well turn out to be more problematic than its worth.  But aspirin has been well tested.  And vaccines have been well tested.  Even the recent Covid vaccines have been well tested.  The fact is you are far more likely to die from Covid if you are unvaccinated than if you are.  Granted, the odds of dying either way are thankfully slim for most of us.  But what people are now faced with is a free and easy way to avoid (a small chance of) death.  Admittedly, it’s possible that in 20 years we’ll learn that these new vaccines cause cancer or such.  But scientific advancement will continue and the fight against cancer is already far better than it was any time in the past.  So the option is between a free and easy way to avoid a chance of death or serious illness now combined with some chance of added problem later that we may know how to deal with and, well, not avoiding that.  Maybe this is a judgement call, but the former seems pretty clearly the better option in standard cases.  (Other downsides, so far as I can tell, are mostly fictitious.  If you’re worried about a computer chip embedded in the vaccine, for example, realize you could have had one put in you when you were born.)

About it being a judgement call. Consider using a GPS.  Some people just slavishly listen to the directions from their GPS. Unfortunately, this can have pretty bad results.  Other people refuse to use a GPS at all, perhaps thinking they have to do it on their own. For me, the GPS (in my phone) is a tool that is helpful to get where I need to go when I can’t really remember all the directions well or simply don’t trust my ability to do so. Still, I listen to the GPS and sometimes override its directions, for example, if I think it’s going in an unsafe way or a way that’s likely to cause more problems.  Here too, judgment is needed.

Unfortunately, we all seem to think we individually have great judgment even though it’s obvious that not all of us do.  Or perhaps better, none of us do all of the time.  Sometimes one has to recognize that we have to trust others to know better than we do.  

So, what should we do?  We should each try to be honest with ourselves about whether our judgment is likely to be better than those telling us to do other than we would choose. We should listen to people who are actually able to consider all of the relevant evidence.  Because it’s unlikely that any single source of information will always be completely trustworthy, we should likely listen to variety of generally trustworthy sources. 

We need to find people we can rely on—mentors or people recognized as experts in the relevant field—and take their views seriously.  This may simply push the problem back a step: those whose judgment lead them to make bad choices may simply choose to listen to other people with similarly bad judgement.  That is a real problem worth further investigation.  My only suggestion here is to trust those who are leading good lives and who have the trust of their professional peers.  I don’t pretend that is sufficient, but can’t say more here except to note that we can only hope to get better decisions, for ourselves and others, if we have better discussions.  To that end, see this postAlso, realize that if people would in fact standardly make better decisions (in part by having better discussions prior to making decisions), there would be less call for government intervention.  Indeed, if we had better conversations across the board, we would have less people wanting government intervention.  Realizing that those who have suffered through COVID are inoculated, for example, should stop others from trying to pressure them to get vaccinated.

Thanks to Lauren Hall, Connor Kianpour, and JP Messina for suggesting ays to improve this post.

Being Pro-Choice

I’m pro-choice. If a woman wants to have an abortion, I believe it is her choice to do so and no one ought to stand in her way. I oppose abortion laws. Similarly, I believe that if I want to take an antibiotic, it is my choice to do so and no one ought to stand in my way. I oppose prescription laws. And also similarly, if someone wants to inject themselves (or swallow) Ivermectin, it is their choice and no one ought to stand in their way. In each of these cases—and all others—I believe information should be provided so that the individual in question can make an educated decision about the action in question, but I believe that they should be allowed to act on their own decision.

I said that in the cases described *and all others* they should be allowed to act on their decision. That also applies, then, to doctors who do not wish to perform abortions and doctors who do not wish to *administer a patient ivermectin (or any other medicine). They ought to be able to act on their choices just as the patients in question ought to be able to. Yet, at least one judge in Ohio has thought it appropriate to require hospitals (admittedly, not specific doctors) to administer a medication they oppose using for a patient (see this). And, as I assume most readers, know, Texas now has a law in place that makes it much harder for doctors to perform abortions on patients who want it. To be clear: even if both patient and doctor agree that the abortion is the best course of action and are willing participants, the doctor is likely to face legal repercussions if the woman is more than 6 weeks pregnant and any private citizen decides to sue. (See this and this.)

What we have in both these cases is a situation where the freedom of some to live in a world where the actions of others are limited—e.g., to not give a patient a drug they oppose using or to help a woman have an abortion—is thought to outweigh the freedom of those others to live their lives as they see fit. The freedom—really, its just the preferences—legally outweigh those of others. To think this is a deep moral debate strikes me as misguided. Abortion is a rightly contentious issue and, in my view, its moral permissibility can only really be resolved by determining whether or not the fetus has a moral status on par with the mother’s. The people behind the Texas law—and those that would sue medical professionals because of it—do not seem interested in trying to discuss that question at all. They seem simply to want to impose their views on others. Those wanting people to be able to use Ivermectin in Butler County, Ohio, similarly seem simply to want to impose their view—or that of the patient—on medical professionals. In both sorts of cases, we have a pernicious form of moralism at play. (See this and this.)

I assume there will always be doctors unwilling to perform abortions. They should be free to act on their preferences. I assume—and hope—there will also always be doctors willing to perform abortions. They, too, should be able to act on their choices (when they have a patient that so chooses). A patient and a doctor coming to an informed agreement should not be interfered with. The same holds for a doctor willing to *administer a patient Ivermectin when the patient wants such. And a doctor unwilling to administer it. For that matter, the same is true (or so I believe) for a doctor and patient wishing to use a Mercitron on a patient that wants it. (See this). Unfortunately, this is not well accepted.

* 9/5, replaced “inject” or “injection,” fixing as needed to accommodate.

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.