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Should We Force Others to Shape Up?

October 20, 2006

Actual Ethics. By James R. Otteson. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Xviii + 349 pgs.

The title of James Otteson's book is, I am sure unintentionally, misleading. Readers might expect a dry and abstract philosophical treatment of ethics. In fact, what Otteson offers is a full-scale defense of classical liberalism.

He has written his book for a popular audience, and he intends it for use in college courses in ethical problems. But he does not confine himself to repeating the lessons of others, though he has certainly learned from his great predecessors. 1  He addresses several issues in an insightful and original way, and it is on his treatment of a few of these issues that I propose to concentrate.

Ethics, in Otteson's view, must take account of the realities of human nature. Persons, e.g., care more about their families and close friends than they do about strangers; and proposals that ignore this are doomed to fail. A "proposed system of moral or political order that is premised on universal benevolence or an absence, even in the long run, of self-interest is a nonstarter" (p. 20). It is attention to the empirical realities of human nature that Otteson has in mind by his title. Following Max Hocutt's Grounded Ethics (Transaction, 2000), he makes no use of a priori deductions of rights.

Ethics, then, must be empirical; but a descriptive account of human nature is not enough. We need also a "bedrock moral principle" (p. 7). For Otteson, this is the Kantian directive to treat every person with respect: no one is to be used merely as a means.

Few, if any contemporary philosophers would differ with Otteson; I cannot think of anyone who argues that persons shouldn't be treated with respect or that we should disregard the realities of human nature. But unfortunately, the way Otteson develops these principles puts him in a decided minority. He maintains that persons need to develop their powers of judgment. To fulfill this demanding goal, an individual needs to take responsibility for his life. In particular, persons must not be protected from the "natural necessities" of human life. Individuals can learn to judge properly only by coping with the consequences of their mistakes. Rights to welfare subvert this conception of human development; enforceable claims to rights must be confined to the classical trio of life, liberty, and property.

Those inclined to dismiss Otteson will find his detailed discussions of particular issues hard to refute. He maintains, e.g., that simple facts about human nature rule out socialism. Under socialism, the state decides what is best for us. But "each of us has a far greater stake in the outcome of our actions than anyone else does. If you make a mistake that leads to bad consequences, it is likely to be you who suffers the consequences … but no one else has similar incentives in your case, and the farther away the decision maker is, the more likely he is to be unconcerned with the consequences of his decisions as they materialize in your life" (p. 53).

Otteson has a striking illustration of the lack of concern for individuals that one can expect from the state. Everyone is familiar with the Exxon Valdez case, in which an oil tanker that ran aground dumped 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean. But how many know about an incident involving the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District? (I certainly did not.) In this incident, the MMSD "'dumped an unprecedented 4.6 billion gallons of raw sewage' into Lake Michigan. The dumping was not a mistake or error, but was rather the MMSD's policy: when their sewage system receives a lot of rainwater … then it is programmed simply to dump the untreated sewage into Lake Michigan" (p. 54). Otteson notes that this "disaster released some four hundred times as much pollution as did the Valdez, and into a lake a fraction of the size of the north Pacific Ocean" (p. 55). Why did this happen?

Is it not likely, Otteson suggests, that a 'large part of the answer … is that politicians knew they could not be held responsible" (p. 55). By long tradition, government officials are immune from prosecution for their official acts. Besides this, government officials are not personally involved with the victims of their callousness or inattention. And can we not go, further, Otteson asks? Do not the atrocities of communism stem in part from the fact that Lenin and his successors "did not themselves endure any of the suffering caused by their decisions and actions, and neither did their loved ones or friends" (p. 56; this is not completely true for Stalin).

One might object to Otteson that the principle of government immunity is not intrinsic to socialism; but his claim about the indifference of government officials cannot be denied. On one minor point about the history of socialism, though, our author has fallen into error. He says that in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels say "that there is some single good for everyone which only the most 'advanced intellectuals' … are qualified to apprehend and interpret" (p. 47). Marx and Engels do not say this, and the words placed in quotation marks are not in the Manifesto. They do speak of a section of the "bourgeois ideologists" who join the proletariat, because they understand the movement of history, but they do not say that only these intellectuals possess this knowledge.

Otteson's argument against socialism is convincing, but does it suffice to show that a regime of laissez-faire capitalism should be established? What about the poor? Are there not people so impoverished that they require immediate aid, regardless of what they are able to earn on the free market? And if private charity does not meet their needs, is not a program of forcible intervention on their behalf justifiable?

Peter Singer has influentially pressed this case, and Otteson subjects his arguments to careful analysis. Singer places great store on an example called the Pond Case: A person passes by a child who is drowning in a small pond. He could easily rescue the child and has no good reason not to do so. "Singer would have us judge the passerby to be immoral if he does not help the child" (p. 29). From this case, Singer draws the general principle that if one can avert death or suffering at an insignificant cost, one ought to do so.

The principle at first seems difficult to controvert, but does it not have radical consequences? Are we not required drastically to increase our donations to the poor? Surely my desire to dine at an expensive restaurant is morally insignificant, as compared to the need for food of someone in Bangladesh who is starving. Am I not obligated to send him or others like him all that I do not require for my own subsistence? And what I do not do myself the state can compel me to do.

Against this, Otteson presses a number of considerations. One of these will be familiar to all students of Austrian economics. Singer's principle requires us to transfer wealth if nothing of comparable moral significance is at stake. (A weaker version of the principle allows us to retain wealth if anything of moral significance would be lost by the transfer; but this is too vague for use.) But how can one assess moral significance? Must we not compare the utility of one person with that of another? Suppose that a wealthy person has the choice of spending money on a trinket or giving the money to a hungry Bengali. The question the follower of Singer's principle must ask "is whether the trinket is worth more to the wealthy person than the meal is to the Bengali" (p. 145, emphasis removed).

But does not Austrian economics show that no such comparisons of utility can be made? It is incoherent to ask whether the trinket or the meal is "objectively" more valuable. Judgments of value reduce without remainder to subjective preferences, and these cannot be ranked between individuals.

Otteson is of course correct that Austrian economics does not use objective values. To explain someone's actions, one must consider the preferences that he actually has. But in like fashion, to explain his actions, one must consider his beliefs, not what is really true. To explain, e.g., why someone campaigns for socialism, one might invoke his belief that socialism will vastly increase wealth. The belief is false, but it still explains his actions.

This hardly shows, though, that there are no objectively true beliefs. Similarly, the fact that explaining action requires the use of subjective preferences does not show that there are no objective values. Otteson has failed to show that any notion of objective value is incoherent; but he can certainly urge against Singer that it is for him to justify such a notion if he wishes to appeal to it.

Otteson advances a number of other considerations against Singer's principle, and one of these seems to me especially compelling. Singer supports his view by appeal to certain moral intuitions. We are supposed to grasp immediately that the trinket has less moral significance than the meal to the Bengali. But if one appeals to intuitions, is not obvious that someone who buys a gift for his wife, rather than give the money it cost to a poor person, is not acting immorally? "Indeed, a moral position that makes a father immoral for buying his daughter a ribbon for her hair so stretches the limits of common moral communication as to suggest a refutation by reductio ad absurdum" (p. 154).

I should like to suggest an additional objection to Singer's principle. Singer supports his principle by appeal to the Pond Case. But that case — the man who refuses to rescue a drowning child — involves someone who does not help, even though there is only a trivial cost in doing so. The example then cannot properly be used to support a principle that mandates substantial sacrifice. 2

Otteson maintains that there should be no government schools, a contention that few of his non-libertarian readers can be expected to view with sympathy. But, with a brilliant argument, he puts his conventionally liberal opponents on this issue in a tight corner. Most people strongly oppose the government's involvement in religion. Does it not violate freedom of conscience if someone is compelled to support financially a church whose doctrines he rejects? And would it not be even worse if were compelled to attend the church?

But does not government schooling entail equally severe violations of freedom of conscience? "Finally, government support for education also commits whatever rights violations that government support for religion does. It infringes on a person's right to free speech to make him support an educational system with which he disagrees … And if a person has beliefs about religion, morality, or politics that differ from what is taught in the government schools, forcing him nevertheless to support that school system involves the same rights violation as does forcing him to support a religion in which he does not believe. Educational policies and curricula are ultimately dependent on our views about deep matters of conscience — such as conceptions of the good life or religious commitments — and hence are protected by the same freedom of conscience that would protect our beliefs about matters of religion. You simply cannot have it both ways" (p. 225). Otteson cites in support of his view the classic essay by H. George Resch, "Human Variation and Individuality" (In William F. Rickenbacker , ed., The Twelve Year Sentence, Open Court, 1974).

Otteson, it is apparent, is a committed classical liberal of the old school; and those inclined to the views of Murray Rothbard will applaud his efforts. In one area, though, he does not go all the way with us. He rejects anarcho-capitalism. A limited state that confines itself to protecting life, liberty, and property, is in his opinion justifiable; moreover, it can tax people to pay for its services.

How can Otteson hold this view? Has he not argued himself that taxation is akin to forced labor? He responds with a distinction: "I [Otteson] believe the classical liberal state can indeed be justified on the following grounds: its purpose is to secure the conditions for the exercise of personhood, and it may do nothing else … the minimal protections of life, liberty, and property can be supported and endorsed by all persons, regardless of whatever their ends and purposes are, because these protections are necessary to pursue any ends or purposes. Anything else a state would do, however, will conflict with at least the ends or purposes of at least some persons. Hence the classical liberal state is justified, but nothing beyond it is" (p. 109).

I do not think that this argument succeeds. If rights protection is a necessary condition to pursue any (legitimate) purpose, then everyone has reason to support the protection of rights. But how does it follow from this that a monopoly agency has the right coercively to extract resources to protect rights? Should one not at least consider the possibility that protection can be provided through voluntary agencies? Otteson is well aware that a number of writers have defended anarcho-capitalism, and remarks of this position: "Just because it is new to you does not mean it is absurd or without plausible foundation" (p. 103). Unfortunately, he does not consider any of the arguments raised by the writers he cites.

Perhaps, though, I have been too hard on our author. He raises the question: what happens if someone rejects the state and wants to protect himself? What if he wishes to employ his own private protection agency? Otteson responds that the objector must be allowed to leave. "Respect for personhood entails that we must respect people's decision to take even this extreme step. If he does not want to pay taxes to the state to provide justice for him, he may opt out; but of course he thereby also gives up the right to ask the state to save him if things go south" (p. 110). If Otteson says this, though, has he not fully embraced anarchism? Why should one speak of taxation if one does not have to pay?

I do not want to end on a negative note, however muted. To me the highlight of the book occurs in a discussion about the distinction between rights and other parts of morality.

Classical liberals sharply distinguish between offenses against justice and unvirtuous conduct that does not violate rights.

If I steal from you, I may justifiably be compelled to return your property; but if I wish to drink myself to death, the state cannot stop me. People are free to persuade me to modify my conduct, or shun me if I will not; but they cannot use force against me.

Many people find this sharp separation implausible, but Otteson suggests that most people implicitly accept it.

"You may have been taken aback by my suggestion that, on the one hand, people should be allowed to engage in activity we all know is wrong or foolish, and, on the other hand, that people should be left to face the consequences of their decisions, even if they are bad or degrading or cause suffering. But even if that offends your sensibilities, I would bet the farm that that is precisely what you do and believe, though perhaps implicitly, in your own life … if your co-worker is wasting her income on bad movies and gambling … you do not forcibly take over management of her finances … why not? Because it is none of my business, you say. Precisely. Other people should enjoy the same freedom as you do, even if they use that freedom unwisely" (p. 121).

Otteson has restated in exemplary fashion a key argument made by Frédéric Bastiat in The Law: the state does not acquire new rights not possessed by individuals. He lists Bastiat as one of his "central sources" (p. vii), and his book establishes him as one of Bastiat's major successors.

  • 1. Otteson has been especially influenced by Adam Smith, about whom he has written an important book. See his Adam Smith's Marketplace of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2002) and my review in The Mises Review, Fall 2004.
  • 2. The best attempt to extend the Pond Case to justify substantial sacrifice is that of Peter Unger in Living High and Letting Die (Oxford, 1996). He presents several cases, each slightly different, that start with little or no sacrifice and end with substantial sacrifice. He suggests that if one accepts the initial case, one will be rationally unable to get off before the end. But his argument is merely an application of the sorites problem and has no weight in this context. See my review in The Mises Review, Spring 1998.


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