Natural Rights of Recipience

Frequent Catallarchy commenter Joe Miller, a professor at UNCP, writes in defense of natural rights of recipience. I realize that this stance is not one that will find support among most Catallarchy readers. Yet, it is a virtue to examine views foreign to us and constantly scrutinize our own beliefs for weaknesses. Please show Joe the same respect he has shown us by remaining civil in the discussion. - Jonathan Wilde

Yes, I’m defending them, and I’d like to thank the nice folks at Catallarchy for allowing a non-classical liberal anarchist to invade the pixels today. Before I defend natural rights of recipience, I want to lay out a bit of groundwork. First, I’m not actually a rights theorist. I’m a consequentialist (a utilitarian, to be specific), so I don’t think that there is any such thing as a right, natural or not. But rights talk is useful shorthand even for a utilitarian, so I’m going to help myself to the language, providing justifications for using it as I go. Second, I want to distinguish between different kinds of rights. Rights are characterized by two sets of distinctions: contractual/natural and non-interference/recipience. Of the four possible combinations, two have names: positive rights, which are contractual rights of recipience (or the right I have to demand that keep your contracts) and negative rights, which are natural rights of non-interference (with a natural right being a right that one gets by virtue of being a rational, autonomous, sentient being). Contractual rights of non-interference aren’t discussed very often, as most rights theorists think that non-interference rights are all natural rights. Natural rights of recipience are also not often discussed as such, though the concept underlies much of liberal political theory.

As I said, I am a utilitarian, and so, like Mill, I am going to pass up the advantages I might be able to get from appealing to natural rights as such, but will instead appeal to what Mill calls “utility in the largest sense, grounded in the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” There is much debate as to what this phrase means, exactly. I think, however, that it is a reference to the distinction Mill makes in Utilitarianism between higher and lower pleasures. Mill argues that higher pleasures are qualitatively better sorts of pleasures, and he claims that he knows this empirically simply by asking those who have experienced both higher and lower pleasures. Although Mill is frustratingly vague about definitions of higher pleasures, I think that the best way to characterize them is as the sensations that result from activities that require that we (a) exercise our autonomy (or choice-making abilities) and (b) express our individuality. Traditionally, Mill scholars go on to give all sorts of snobbish examples of higher pleasures (e.g., poetry, wine, classical music, and chess). While these are higher pleasures, so, too are things like poker, beer, and video games. Many video games, I’m thinking here about online role-playing games, require players to make numerous choices; often these games are complex enough to allow for considerable expression of individuality in reaching successful conclusions.

So what does any of this have to do with natural rights of recipience? Well, one of the implications of this account of higher pleasures is that the only way to achieve them is through the exercise of our autonomy. Ideally, people would exercise their autonomy in ways that lead to higher pleasures, but of course not everyone will do so. Still, since by definition I can’t force someone to act autonomously, and since autonomy is a necessary condition for attaining higher pleasures, it looks like I have good reasons for protecting liberty generally. I have, in other words, a utilitarian argument for negative rights.

But the requirement that I protect autonomy does not entail that I am prohibited from doing things that promote higher pleasures. Indeed, this point is particularly crucial when we consider that autonomy is not the only necessary condition for attaining the higher pleasures. Consider that most of the kinds of activities that are likely to yield higher pleasures are luxury activities. Only rich societies can afford things like philosophy, art, and math, and only really rich societies have video games and microbreweries. In other words, to have a society with an abundance of activities that lead to higher pleasures presupposes that the society be one in which basic needs (food, shelter, medical care, and education, primarily) are already being met.

Like Mill, I think that capitalism is the best way of insuring a wealthy society. I’m not going to argue for that claim here both because I lack the space and because I suspect that, in this forum, not many will disagree. But capitalism, like the traditional utilitarianism with which it has so much in common, is not always efficient at distributing wealth. Capitalism creates enough aggregate wealth to allow for the pursuit of luxury activities, but it does not guarantee that each individual can afford those luxuries. But as a Millian utilitarian, I am interested in promoting higher pleasures, and the more of these, the better. Of course, we have no way of knowing ahead of time which citizens will be most efficient at producing higher pleasures, so in the absence of such knowledge, the best way to ensure that we maximize higher pleasures is to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to experience higher pleasures.

This goal, however, will mean more than just simply not interfering with others. Just as societies must have certain basic necessities in place before they can afford activities that lead to higher pleasures, so, too much individuals have a certain minimal level of education, food, medical care and shelter in order to experience higher pleasures. I’ve never tried the experiment, but I suspect that an illiterate, starving, plague-ridden homeless guy won’t gonna get all that much out of either poetry or Halo. So providing everyone with a real opportunity to experience higher pleasures will mean that everyone must have a certain minimal level of basic necessities.

We now have a utilitarian argument for the importance of protecting liberty, for regarding liberty as a kind of right, but we also have a utilitarian argument for the desirability of providing everyone with basic necessities. There is good reason, then, to think of this as a right as well, a right enjoyed by all people simply by virtue of being people and a right that entitles all holders to receive certain things. Now in a well-functioning capitalist system, the market itself will provide most people with the necessary luxuries; for the majority, positive rights are met by the invisible hand of the market. But those who slip through the cracks still have rights of recipience. And those have to be met, too.

Of course, to say that X has a right to A is to say that there is someone else who has a responsibility to see that X receives A. For example, when A is a negative right, then it really is a right of non-interference, and it is filled just when everyone else leaves X alone. If A is a positive right, then X has a right to A because Y has promised to give A to X, so Y is solely responsible for fulfilling X’s right. If A is a natural right of recipience, then everyone has the responsibility of fulfilling X’s right to receive A. But what does that mean? Well, for starters, it clearly can’t be the case that every individual has a responsibility to provide A to X. Even if X is entitled to receive an education, it does not follow that everyone else must each independently provide X with an education. Moreover, it cannot be the case that Y, who is just as poor as X, has an obligation to provide X with A. Ought implies can, and so anyone who cannot provide A to X is not obligated to do so.

But what about Z, who can afford to provide A to X? Is it Z’s responsibility to do so? I think that the answer here is still no. Consider that there will be lots of individuals who are in the same position as X. Morally speaking, there is no reason to distinguish between X and the many others who share X’s same circumstances. So if X has a moral claim on Z, that is, if Z is responsible for providing X with A, then everyone else in the same position as X would have exactly the same claim on Z. Unfortunately, no one in even the richest society can afford to provide A to everyone too poor to provide A on his/her own. (I don’t see how a completely deregulated economy fares much better. As Micha has pointed out elsewhere, our society mostly redistributes from the sort-of wealthy to the sort-of poor. Eliminating all taxes won’t provide the wealthiest will that much extra money nor will it provide the poorest with much extra—and may actually provide them with less—for meeting basic necessities. I find it hard to imagine that even paying zero taxes, Warren Buffet will suddenly have sufficient wealth to personally guarantee food, shelter, medical care and educations to everyone who cannot afford one.)

I think, then, that responsibility for fulfilling rights of recipience cannot possibly attach to individuals. Instead, it must attach to society as a whole. Government redistribution of wealth is a mechanism for discharging our collective responsibilities to fulfill natural rights of recipience. And this forced redistribution is not inconsistent with Mill’s defense of liberty; remember that liberty is valuable only because it is a necessary condition for attaining higher pleasures. If certain restrictions on that liberty (say, a restriction on what you can do with 15% or 33% of your salary) are also necessary for protecting conditions under which maximizing higher pleasures is possible, then those restrictions are likewise justified on utilitarian grounds.

I know that most parts of the argument here are done far too quickly. That’s what happens when you reduce a journal-length (or maybe even book-length) topic to a blog post. I’ll trust the readers at Catallarchy to point out all of the weak spots, and I’ll try to defend them as they come up. With luck, by the time we’re all done, I’ll have a journal article out of it. :smile:

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Joe, If somebody needs a


If somebody needs a kidney, then supplying him with a kidney is the medical treatment required to supply him with the minimal necessities needed to let him pursue higher pleasures; without it he will die. The minimal necessities are what you seem committed to supplying people. That's your stated standard.

You're willing to rob people to provide others with these necessities, but you don't seem to be willing to violate bodily integrity. So, you're in the line-drawing business.

Why, other than your comfort with robbery, should the line be drawn at taking some amount of many people's money (and, just how much is ok?) rather than at violations of liberty?

Have you made any case at all that you've chosen the right line? Is there some calculation that you can explicitly show us that justifies your choice, or is this just the way you like things to work, and the rest is BS because we have no way of knowing whether or not it maximizes higher pleasures?

Gil, Don't you think that


Don't you think that "comfort with robbery" maybe begs the question a bit? After all, it's only "robbery" if it's an unjustified taking, and the justified part is the issue at hand. Just this morning I was praising the civility of the discussion here, but it's showing some signs of degeneration into name-calling lately.

Yes, I am in the line-drawing business. We sometimes also call it the philosophy business. We draw distinctions between things. Continental philosophers sometimes argue that analytic philosophers draw too many distinctions and lose sight of the bigger picture. But I don't think that's your objection here, since, so far at least, everyone presenting arguments here and everyone who has been linked to has been an analytic philosopher of some sort or another. Whence the objection to drawing lines? You might not like the places in which I draw lines, just as I have reservations about the places where you draw lines. But we're both drawing lines even if we draw them differently.

"The minimal necessities are what you seem committed to supplying people. That’s your stated standard."

Yes, it's true that my initial post does say this. I also have already said that my initial post was inadequate in that it doesn't give sufficient weight to the nonzero costs of sacrificing autonomy. That's what I attempted to do in my previous post to you. Your latest response, it seems to me, doesn't address my revised position; it just restates the initial objection, which I already conceded. If you're not going to respond to my rearticulated position (which has been rearticulated based on your (and Nicholas') criticism. So rather than respond to the objection here, I'll just refer you back to my last post to you where I give utilitarian reasons for thinking that redistributing money will be utility maximizing whereas redistributing kidneys won't.

"Is there some calculation that you can explicitly show us that justifies your choice"

F(x) = ??-? [? (n/n!)y^(n-1)] dy

"is this just the way you like things to work, and the rest is BS because we have no way of knowing whether or not it maximizes higher pleasures"

Well, if you think that providing arguments is really just BS, then I'm not sure why you're bothering. You should take a look at Harry Frankfurt's new book _On Bullshit_ ( before you go flinging the BS label about. You and I might disagree on the truth of my claims, but they aren't BS. Frankfurt describes BS not as a lie but rather as not caring whether one's claims are actually true. So, no, I'm not engaged in BS; I think that my claims are true, and while I respect your disagreements, quite frankly I don't much appreciate the suggestion that I am BSing you.

Now, do I know (I assume here you mean, "have certain knowledge that") my proposal will maximize higher pleasures? Nope. But in that sense, I don't know that there will be a sunrise tomorrow, either. Have I given some reasons for thinking that my proposal might maximize higher pleasures. Yes. We can dispute those reasons as soon as you're ready to stop with the insults and actually argue.

As a qualitative hedonist, I

As a qualitative hedonist, I care that they produce the right sorts of pleasure. And yes, that does mean that I’m concerned with what is going on in your head.

So, freedom of choice for thee but not for me. And if you're forcibly taking resources to support a particular kind of pleasure, yes, that is an abrogation of freedom, and you have come nowhere near proving (see below) that your theory of what's important to everybody conforms enough to reality to justify this abrogation.

And no it doesn’t imply pleasure police. If you read carefully, you will see (lots of times) that I have characterized higher pleasures as those that stem from activities requiring the exercise of my autonomy in a way that expresses my individuality.

Your use of the first-person pronoun here tips your hand: at bottom, this is a very solipsistic, "I-am-the-world" proposal. Where do you get this definition of pleasure, and more importantly, how do you know that this is a good thing for everyone?

Indeed, the first and second sentences here are not entirely consistent. Anecdotal evidence does constitute a ground for believing something to be true, even if it’s not always the best grounds.

Anecdotal evidence might be OK in a pinch if we were asking whether something exists at all, but you're claiming that your phenomenon is universally true, in which case anecdotal evidence is worthless.

In fact, I’m not aware of any facts at our disposal that prove that human beings do not in fact prefer more complex activities (i.e., the sorts of activities I’ve described ad nauseum) to less complex activities. That those who have experienced both sorts of activities pretty much invariably prefer the former seems pretty good evidence for thinking that the claim might at least serve as a working assumption.

1, you're asking me to prove a negative. You're the one making a positive claim, so the burden of proof is on you - there is no such evidentiary standard as "true until proven untrue".
2, I submit myself and everyone I know as counterexamples - listening to Bach and reading economic theory have not compelled me or my acquaintances to give up, say, pizza, PS2 or American Idol, and we will quite often choose the latter over the former, and wouldn't necessarily give up the latter for the former if the Pleasure Police tried to make us do so. For me, "higher" and "lower" pleasures (assuming that I even make such a distinction in my life, which I don't) are different things that both have their place and are both necessary to my preferred lifestyle. So while I have not positively proved anything, I have disproved your absolute proposition that all people who experience both "high" and "low" pleasures prefer the former.

Hi Joe, I certainly didn't

Hi Joe,

I certainly didn't mean to be uncivil. I just meant to argue passionately about an important subject.

I meant robbery in a particular way (roughly, forcibly taking property without consent or via the terms of a valid contract...) that wasn't dependent on whether it was justified under some theory. I should have chosen my words more carefully. Likewise, I didn't mean by BS that you were intending to mislead, exactly, but that you were constructing an elaborate structure that didn't really perform its stated purpose.

I wasn't objecting to line-drawing per se, I was just pointing out that your conclusion that the line should be drawn where you chose didn't seem to me to be supported by your stated goal of maximizing the opportunities for the pursuit of higher pleasures.

Again, I'm sorry it felt like name-calling to you. I didn't mean it that way.

I do respect you and the work you're doing, and I'm sympathetic to the program of weighing values against each other, and discovering which rules lead to the most good.

But, I still think you're wrong. :-)

Alex, "2, I submit myself


"2, I submit myself and everyone I know as counterexamples - listening to Bach and reading economic theory have not compelled me or my acquaintances to give up, say, pizza, PS2 or American Idol, and we will quite often choose the latter over the former."

I'm not sure that these are in fact real instances of lower pleasures. You should take a look at my response to David above about elitist vs non-elitist higher pleasures. Don't assume that only Bach and economic theory count. I don't see any reason why PS2 and American Idol can't count as higher pleasures if done in the right way. Indeed, the sorts of comments and posts on American Idol that I see here at Catallarchy show that many of you watching the show are watching it in ways that make it count as a higher pleasure. So I deny that you have given any anecdotal evidence at all of people who, having experienced all sorts of pleasures, will regularly choose the lower over the higher.

Sometimes choose lower over higher isn't at all irrational; sometimes I'm just too tired to pursue higher pleasures. But I won't do so regularly, and I don't think that you really do either. What you don't do is pursue higher culture regluarly, but my account in no way commits me to the claim that people will always prefer Bach and economics. The claim is that, all else equal, people will choose activities that require them to exercise certain of their faculties over activities that don't make such requirements.

"1, you’re asking me to prove a negative. You’re the one making a positive claim, so the burden of proof is on you - there is no such evidentiary standard as “true until proven untrue"."

This completely misreads the argument I offer. I'm beginning with bits of data (anecdotal evidence, and rather a lot of it, as long as you don't mischaracterize my position as requiring wine, classical music and philosophy all the time.) I then construct a moral theory built on those data points. Moreover, I'm giving you a theory that is falsifiable and explaining how you would go about falsifying it (namely, show that people don't really have the preferences I say that they do). Social scientists can then construct experiments designed either to support or refute the hypothesis I have offered. This is, I believe, how science works. I'm not offering "true until proven untrue." I'm offering "here are some reasons for thinking X is true, so if you don't want to believe X, offer some reasons for thinking that it's false."

You might, by the way, want to do a bit of homework before dismissing what is essentially my version of the Aristotelian principle so completely out of hand. Among those who defend something pretty similar, please see F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, pp. 40-1. I am offering a utilitarian use of a theory of motivation that isn't all that unheard of even among libertarian heroes.

I doubt that the experience

I doubt that the experience of those of us who like to argue philosophy and ethics can really be universalized so blithely. Sure, everyone we can think of prefers the “higher” to the “lower” pleasures. But we’re all philosophy-and-ethics-types and so are the people we know! The sample of people whose preferences we’re familiar with is not representative of humanity at large.

I disagree with this. I agreed with Joe's point abouy the different types of pleasures, and I think all the responses pretty much missed the boat. He is not trying to a priori define what types of pleasures are good - that would be hubris, as commenters have pointed out. He is simply saying that if we want to maximize happiness, we should not maximize pleasure in general, but look to the empirical evidence about the connection between various types of pleasure and happiness.

And at least from what I've read, that empirical evidence is fairly consistent, and it *does* say that some types of pleasures (family, satisfying job, friends) give more happiness than others. Calling them higher/lower, or including poetry, is elitist and I think muddies the waters, but there is a genuine difference here. See eg _Flow_ for studies done on a wide variety of people.

I dearly wish that

I dearly wish that libertarians were right that private charity would be sufficient to keep people from falling through the cracks. It would make me feel much better about the world to believe that this would happen. I just doubt that it is true. It seems to me that if people really were that generous, then there would be far fewer starving people in the world. After all, nothing is preventing Americans from giving lots of money to various world-wide charities now. Even after paying taxes, many of us still have plenty of disposable income.

Joe - this point may have been made in the comments but it takes awhile to wade through them, and I think its important, so...

The consequentalist response to this is to make it clear that we are *not* saying that no one would fall through the cracks. What we are saying is that the type of society which provides a safety net for everyone (a redistributive one) is sufficiently worse in other ways (even utilitarian ones) as to be undesirable. You've made it clear in the comments here that you are flexible about how you view the safety net goal - you are not willing to make society substantially worse to help a few people. You want safety if its a "net" win, to make a bad pun.

I believe, due to both theoretical reasoning and empirical evidence, that the price of redistribution is far more than merely the income transferred from the rich. It is a society in which such redistribution constantly creeps forward, is taken over and manipulated by special interests, and in the end costs society far more than it gains.

If you examine the relationship between gvt. spending and economic growth, you'll see that the former reduces the exponent of the latter. A world with 8% yearly GDP growth is going to get to the stage where anyone can have any physical goods they want from nanoassemblers much, much faster than one with 2% yearly growth. Or where a donation of 1% of income is sufficient to feed 1,000 in Africa, instead of feeding 10.

I would be far more amenable to redistribution if I thought it could be done in such a way as to avoid this problem, but I don't think it ever has been. Of course, we've never had a stable laissez-faire society either, and I want people to listen to my reasons why we could, so I'll listen to reasons why others think redistribution could be controlled :).

Dr. Miller, Impressive

Dr. Miller,

Impressive arguments. Just popped by to show my support. This stuff is dense, but once you get through it, you learn alot.

Good Luck!


Patri, "A world with 8%


"A world with 8% yearly GDP growth is going to get to the stage where anyone can have any physical goods they want from nanoassemblers much, much faster than one with 2% yearly growth. Or where a donation of 1% of income is sufficient to feed 1,000 in Africa, instead of feeding 10."

I agree. I'm all for the nanoassemblers, too. Here's my question, though. Why think that some redistribution is going to reduce growth from 8% to 2%? (I'm going to betray my stunning lack of economic sophistication, so try to control the laughter). As I understand it (read: oversimplified), redistribution is supposed to harm productivity by taking resources that would have been used to make the economy grow and turning those resources into consumptive resources. What I've never understood is why that increased consumption wouldn't still have the effect of turning the redistributed wealth back into capital in the form of higher profits for those who produce whatever is now being consumed at a greater rate? Why doesn't all that redistributed wealth just "trickle up" to the people whose funds were being redistributed?

So here's my second proposal. Again, bear in mind that I'm not an economist and my last course in the subject was a long time ago. What would be the effect on the economy of (a) cutting capital gains taxes to zero, (b) eliminating income taxes entirely, and (c) funding redistributive programs entirely on the basis of (fairly high) sales taxes on luxury items. (No, I'm not sure how exactly to define the latter, other than obvious things like houses over a certain value, second homes, yachts, certain kinds of cars, or the like.) If the worry about redistribution is that it takes away capital, then wouldn't this kind of system solve that problem. There would be no tax whatsoever on money that was actually used as capital. To the extent that the wealthy want to indulge in certain kinds of luxuries rather than directly investing in production, well that money is taxed and redistributed. After all, money being spent on luxury items is money that is already being spent in consumption. My proposal would just have the consumption consist of different things.

Perhaps there are really obvious reasons for not doing this sort of thing. I expect that you have a better handle on economics than I. :smile: Is there a reason that this wouldn't work (or at least wouldn't eliminate a lot of the worries you express)?

It seems to me that arguing

It seems to me that arguing against the distinction between higher and lower pleasure from a libertarian perspective isn't a winning battle. The effect of it on the theory is definately a net positive, as it seems to be the only reason autonomy is still valued in this theory. Without this assumption, there doesn't seem much in the theory to provide limits and make sure the theory doesn't degenerate into one that glorifies a Brave New World type of society (Though maybe I am misinterpretting what lower order pleasures are).

That said, how can you be sure the people on the border line can be brought up to a level where they can experience higher order pleasures? If genetic testing was able to show someone is mostly incapable of higher order pleasures, would the minimum spending on them be less?
Also, (Patri's comments alluded to this but didn't come out and ask it directly), what is the time preference of your theory? How do you weigh this against the future capacity for higher order pleasures that might emerge in an even wealthier society? Are people's pleasures today valued more so then people tommorow in this theory?

Joe, very high taxes on

Joe, very high taxes on luxury items would be troublesome because the demand for such goods is elastic. If you tax highly expensive houses, yachts, nice cars, etc., you'll be forcing out of those markets everyone but the incredibly wealthy. And the burden would fall largely on producers of luxury goods, so some owners of capital still get hurt. You're more correct than you realize when you say that you would be changing the composition of consumption, but it would occur partly, maybe mostly, before any redistribution. If you want a sure tax-base, you would need to tax something that people need, with an inelastic demand, such as food, or water. But why bother with this? Any tax has its ill effects. Its hard not to hurt the owners of capital. As taxes go, I am least offended by flat taxes or land taxes. A land tax is inescapable, and a flat-tax is likely to encourage more compliance from the wealthy. Kept to a minumum, both are reasonable replacements for the myriad system of taxes that we have now.

As for your first question, just imagine two scenarios. To start, you have X amount of productive resources and there is T amount of wealth to purchase those goods. In scenario one Z amount of wealth is invested into capital goods, so that there is X+Z amount of productive resources. The amount of wealth available for consumption is somewhere near T, perhaps slightly more. In scenario two let's say that Z amount of wealth is instead transfered to consumers, so that there remains X amount of productive resources but T+Y amount of wealth available to purchase those goods. Which is better, more production (and thus more goods to purchase) or more wealth for consumption with static levels of production? This is simplified, and gives two extremes, but I hope you see my point. Any wealth that is given to consumption instead of production leaves consumers as a group worse off. Was it J.B. Say who said that supply creates its own demand?

I could be wrong or unclear on parts so let those better than me correct my explanation if I am.

David, "Which is better,


"Which is better, more production (and thus more goods to purchase) or more wealth for consumption with static levels of production?"

But in scenario 2, production won't remain static, will it? As more wealth is actually spent in consumption, that wealth transfers back into the pockets of the consumers, no? If supply creates its own demand, won't demand create its own supply, too? There would be a problem if I redistributed all surplus capital (i.e., all wealth not being used to produce the current supply). Then increased demand would have no outlet, since there wouldn't be anything left for increasing production at all. (Even in this case, though, when people realize that there is an unmet demand, surely some of them will band together and turn some of their excess consumption wealth back into capital to realize a profit from filling unmet demand). But in any case, I'm not proposing anything like a redistribution of all excess captial.

As for my proposal, I do realize that luxury goods are highly elastic. That's part of the point; those who object to paying taxes can easily avoid them simpply by refusing to buy taxed goods. It's exit at it's finest, no? :grin:

Sure some suppliers of capital will be harmed. Suppliers of different sorts of capital will be helped. So those who produce bottom-of-the-line luxury cars will be run out of business. But consider that, for every dollar not spent on luxury items (in order to avoid paying taxes), that dollar will be (a) invested, or (b) spent on some non-taxable item. But (a) will provide more capital, leading to increased supply, which, as you note above, brings its own demand, and (b) will increase demand for other kinds of items, leading to incentive to increase supply which should then provide outlets for those displaced by the reduced demand for luxury goods.

The flat tax and/or land tax strike me as hard to justify on utilitarian grounds. Both seem highly inefficient means of redistribution, as they would essentially redistribute from the kind-of-wealthy and the not-terribly-wealthy to the poor. Maybe they are better than the tax system that we have now, but I think that many other things would be better than what we have now while also being more efficient at redistribution.

Jeff and Patri, At last some

Jeff and Patri,

At last some (partial) defenders. The point of the higher/lower distinction is precisely to allow a utilitarian account of value to capture what it is that is appealing about Kantian protection of autonomy while still (unlike Kantians) recognizing that consequences are what matter. My goal is to provide a stronger defense of autonomy than is standardly thought possible for utilitarians. Autonomy is still instrumentally valuable, but it's valuable as a necessary condition for experiencing the kinds of pleasure that people really value, which means that there are going to have to be awfully good reasons for violating autonomy. The sorts of restrictions on autonomy that I defend are those that are required for meeting another necessary condition for experiencing pleasure.

As far as Jeff's question about bringing up borderline cases, the answer is, I can't be sure that this will be possible. I worry, though, that genetic tests aren't going to be much help here. Genetic tests tell us, at best, about probabilities, but they can't ever tell us with any sort of certainty what sorts of things people will be capable of. Whatever role we might think that nature plays in human development, I think it's undeniable that nurture still plays a significant role. So to rule out based on genetic testing seems pretty dubious.

The higher pleasures argument is not going to provide a compelling reason for assisting those who are clearly incapable of higher pleasures (the severely mentally handicapped, say). But surely there are other utilitarian reasons for thinking it a good thing to assist those who are completely unable to help themselves in a market economy. And I think that, as I've described the higher pleasures, only the really severely mentally handicapped will really be incapable.

My goal in giving definitions isn't to impose elitist preferences. And when I talk about poetry, I don't mean to do that. What I am trying to do is to take those sorts of things that empirical evidence shows people really value and show what it is that they have in common. I think that what they have in common is that they are activities that require us to exercise certain of our faculties. That's why I've been trying to stress that, while elitist sorts of examples may be really clear cases of exercising those faculties, plenty of other non-elitist things also involve those same faculties. I use the higher/lower distinction because I'm a Mill scholar and those are Mill's terms. We could pick a less loaded way of making the distinction if you'd like.

You both raise a good point about future capacity, and as a utilitarian I am committed to taking a long-term view of consequences. I think that I differ from both of you mainly in that I think it possible to redistribute without significantly impacting productivity. Or, at the very least, I think that it's possible to redistribute (and thus increase the utility of present peoples) without affecting long-term development all-that-significantly. So redistribution might slow the economy slightly, but the increase in utility for present people will offset the small utility losses of future people who will live in an economy that is slightly less advanced than it might have been. But since redistribution will continue into the future (though ideally at lower and lower levels as the economy grows), those gains will also help to offset further future losses.

Now if you show, as per Patri's example, that any redistribution really has the effect of slowing growth by a factor of 4, then I'll rethink my position. But I suspect that example overstates the case even for our current pretty inefficient redistribution, and I'm almost certain that there are redistributive schemes far more efficient than the one we have now.

Gil, Thanks for the


Thanks for the response. I had hoped that you hadn't really intended what I seemed to be reading, and I appreciate the confirmation.

By the way, we seem to have reached an area of agreement here. I think that you're wrong, too. I wonder if mutual belief in the other's wrongness is an adequate basis for a Rawlsian overlapping consensus?

Joe - its hard to answer

Joe - its hard to answer your question briefly. The basic answer is that the huge loss is not caused by the small amount of redistribution necessary to provide basic welfare. It's the fact that when you have a redistributionist society, the agents doing the redistribution (ie bits of government, govt. employees, politicians) tend to hijack the process to their own ends. The machinery for redistribution grows and grows, using up far more resources than are successfully redistributed. That pretty much describes our govt now, to a libertarian.

There are certainly efficient taxes, as you allude to. But its not the primary effects of redistribution, its the secondary ones. And its not like this sort of thing is intuitively obvious - I don't think we figured it out until we saw it happen. If you're looking for more information, the most relevant keyword is probably "public choice economics".

And at least from what

And at least from what I’ve read, that empirical evidence is fairly consistent, and it does say that some types of pleasures (family, satisfying job, friends) give more happiness than others. Calling them higher/lower, or including poetry, is elitist and I think muddies the waters, but there is a genuine difference here. See eg Flow for studies done on a wide variety of people.

Argh, why couldn't you have cited this in the first place and made it clearer that you were not just advocating state-sponsored snobbery?! If you had evidence, why the delay in presenting it? Sheesh. :sweat: Sounds like pretty interesting stuff, actually...

That said, I'm still not at all convinced that governmentally guaranteeing every last person's access to higher/more/challenging/etc. pleasure is worth the amount of rights-abrogation and market disruption that an implementation of this would require. Again, look at history - governments, particularly big ones, are wasteful and unresponsive and wind up being controlled by people who could give a crap how much higher pleasure their subjects experience as long as they can stay in power through easier, if less socially responsible, means.

And finally, what recommends pleasure as a moral standard over, say, justice and self-determination? Not everybody wants to be a pig in a cage on antibiotics... :smile:

Joe: I know I'm jumping in


I know I'm jumping in here way, way late (so likely nobody will read this), and I'm way out of practice wrt rigorous philosophical and political thought (hence the reason I've been seeking out great blogs like Catallarchy), but I'm quite surprised nobody has brought up this point yet. (Maybe everybody considered it too obvious to mention, and if so, never let it be said that I'm unwilling to point out the obvious.) And even if nobody reads this, it will help me remember my point, so I can make it at a later time. :)

I'm not going to deny that the use of force by governments has, in the past, had specific positive effects, for example, in the areas of poverty and literacy. (Though I question whether those really outweight the specific and non-specific negative effects on society and human thinking as a whole. Patri's comments above make this point to an extent, I think, although I'd make the case a bit more strongly that it shapes the way people -think- more than I'd emphasize how the process gets hijacked by agents of evil. Not that the hijacking is a trivial matter.) I'm also not going to deny that you're arguing for a stronger foundation for autonomy than is traditionally allowed for in utilitarian arguments. It's your argument to make, and considering that it's a law of nature that we're not going to get everybody to agree to the same basic principles, I'd rather have as many people arguing *for* something I consider of value than against it, even if we don't all agree on why it's a value. (The Mass Conversion is some time off, but I've heard it's scheduled between 6am - 7am on a Tuesday.) So if you can convince your fellow utilitarians, so much the better!

But it seems kind of strange to me that, in your arguments in favor of a redistributive government, you're providing allowance for (a) improved methods, (b) improved education/understanding, and (c) improved motivation. In other words, you're implicitly acknowledging that our current redistributive government isn't cutting it, and that the way to "fix" it is by making stronger (utilitarian) arguments for redistribution, using what we've learned over the past two hundred years about taxation, redistribution, etc., to improve our methods, and educating everybody that this is, indeed, a political value. Correct me if I've got it wrong.

Where this fails, of course, is that you're denying the same allowance for a libertarian society. You harp on the break-down of private charities in 18th and 19th century Britian, and you offer up an anecdote about how college freshmen (who probably have never had to reason critically before in their lives) almost instinctively fall back on "blaming the poor" for being poor. (You don't offer up any anecdotes about how those same freshmen fare at the end of your course, or at the end of their four year education. Odd, that.)

Yet, here's the thing: you're a professor. You're helping to foster a better understanding in these students. You're not being coerced into teaching, and they're not being coerced into learning. In fact, one would presume that their whole reason for being there is to learn (not necessarily a valid presumption of college students, I know, even of those who may be considering a philosophy major). You are, apparently, doing good work. Your students are, apparently, coming out of the experience having a better understanding of the world, and more able to challenge their class prejudices. So what, prey tell, leads you to believe that the only way they're going to be able to relieve the suffering of other people is if they're forced to do so? (Or, if you don't like the word "forced," then let's say that the choice is removed from their hands, and is made totally out of sight, and out of mind, and therefore, is not dependent on them giving it even a second thought. Or even of much liking it.) Why shouldn't good people such as yourself, putting up the good fight, educating other good (but ignorant) people, be taken into account in a libertarian world? Would you stop teaching in such a world? Do you think a majority of people who share your values would stop teaching in such a world? Do you think a majority of students would fail to learn the right lessons in such a world?

Things have changed in the last two hundred years. Our people are more educated. We converse more regularly. We are exposed to more diverse opinions. We have better means of dealing with poverty and illiteracy (for example, clothing and food is cheaper to distribute, and houses are cheaper to construct, though obviously segregating all the poor people into one place doesn't work--every "project" I've known has been a crime haven). Some of this, I will allow, has been the result of government intervention. (Though, again, I contend this is largely because society had been structured in such a way that most of those with the education and wealth and influence to do so were aristocrats, or "democratic" counterparts thereto. That, too, has changed, and could change even more if we allow it.) You have provided no argument that I can see that a redistributive government is the best, or even the only, or even a legitimate, means of achieving the ends you seek. All I see (forgive me if I've missed something) is a non sequitur argument: "A is good. By the way, did I mention how partial I am to Z as a solution for the world's ills? Therefore, A is only solved by Z."

Here's a thought experiment. Let's imagine that, over the course of the next twenty years, all the governments in the world just start disappearing, until we're left with a "pure anarcho libertarian" world (I'm more of a minarchist, but most here seem to favor anarchy, so let's go with that). What happens to the compassionate liberals? What happens to the libertarian-friendly utilitarians who've argued for wealth redistribution? What happens to all the people who have been educated to feel empathy with those who have not been so fortunate in life? What happens to the history books and economic analyses, which have documented both what has been done right and what has been done wrong over the last millennium? What happens to the people who are *interested* in these kinds of philosophical issues, and trying out new policies, and working toward some "ideal place"? Do they all vanish? Do they all forget who they formally were under their ex-governments? Do they all become vicious animals, out for themselves, stepping on the hands of the homeless who lay in the street? Do they stop trying new ways of solving old problems? Do they stop learning from their mistakes? What, exactly, would happen in such a world, that would lead a libertarian (or even yourself) to argue that it has such horrible consequences, that even given all the (let's say "supposed") benefits of libertarianism, we absolutely must, at all costs, avoid heading in that direction?

Given all the energy that is put into empowering governments, enlarging governments, increasing (including debating, enforcing, complying with) taxation, extending regulation, and so on, and the poor fruits of all this labor (again, correct me if you think the current state of redistributive governments in the world is close to, or approaching, ideal), I'd think, purely from a utilitarian point of view, that putting more energy into cooperating with people with opposed political views (as you are, admittedly, doing), and empowering individuals, and using that extra time and wealth to actually help those who we *claim* we want to help, would be a pretty reasonable move. Do you disagree?

So, even allowing your argument that a utilitarian accounting is the best, and that what we most need is to ensure that everybody has access to the basic necessities of life (do you deny there would be those who deny these necessities?), I haven't seen any argument why a libertarian world would not provide this. (As you write in another comment, you claim that redistributing wealth to the poor would increase consumption, thereby increasing profits for those in the business of providing the things that are consumed. Isn't that a fairly accurate portrayal of a libertarian world, if only "forced redistribution" were replaced with "voluntary redistribution"? Wouldn't that increase the selfish motivation of encouraging charitable giving?)

OK, I wrote more than I intended. I hope at least one person reads it and thinks it was worth their time. I'm sure there are holes in there. But, time is finite, and as I value my Saturday nights with my wife, I must be off...