Universality Isn’t Enough
There is an extent to which the requirement of universality makes sense to me, in that consistency between principles and in the application of principles seems like a reasonable thing to expect from a social theory. However, there are certain reasons why I consider these arguments to be insuffient, aside from the most obvious fact that our assumption of universality being required in the first place needs to be justified. In the case of Molyneux’s UPB, the problem I see is that universality by itself, without any other criteria, leaves us with no actual positive case for what we’re trying to argue for; this merely functions to restate the obvious fact that it’s incompatible with other things. The fact that non-aggression isn’t compatible with aggression and that there is an inconsistency between people’s political theories and their behavior isn’t much of an epiphany (and this is all that UPB really manages to demonstrate: internal inconsistency and hypocrisy).
Furthermore, there’s no reason why it’s a libertarian conception of justice(or a particular one, for that matter, since it may be important to keep in mind that there is no exactly a single, uniform libertarian conception of justice when it comes down to the nitty gritty details) that only passes the universality test. In fact, any moral theory can pass the universality test so long as it is internally consistent, and hence UPB could justify an authoritarian theory just as well as a libertarian one. It is in this sense that it is most obvious that the standard of universality by itself is not sufficient: consequentialist grounds (or what Molyneux calls “the argument from effect) have to be brought in, which in turn are dependant on values other than universality.
I find Rothbard’s eliminative argument about self-ownership insufficient for similar reasons. For one thing, the “communalist” alternative of everyone owning eachother passes a universality test; its just the wrong thing that it’s universalizing, and hence we need grounds other than universality for why it’s the wrong thing to be universalizing (of course, one could use it as a reductio ad absurdum, but that would nonetheless beg the question in that it is only absurd relative to our value of individualism in the first place, which we have to still argue for). For another thing, I think that Rothbard’s dismissal of the unspoken fourth option of universal non-ownership of persons is hasty and mistaken.
This gets into some of my problems with the concept of “self-ownership”. If what we really mean is the idea that noone can be owned by anyone else, that people are not to be construed as property, then I’m in complete agreement. However, I do not think that this is the same thing as claiming to “own” yourself; I do not think that it follows from the rejection of others owning me that I am claiming to own myself. I think that to use the concept of “ownership” in this context is out of place, or metaphorical at best, because we are still conceptualizing people as property with “self-ownership” and I do not think that the claim of personal sovereignty is identical to the way that “ownership” over external objects works (not to mention the implied dualism of “me” owning “me”). This is an issue that I have with absolutist propertarianism, in that I view the tendency to completely frame everything in terms of property to be a mistake, since the non-transferability or “inalienability” of life and liberty is precisely what conceptually distinguishes it from property.
But I digress. The eliminative argument for “self-ownership” is not a positive case for personal sovereignty. It simply rules out a master/slave relationship or a political-class/subject-class relationship on the grounds of non-universality and rules out universal slavery on the grounds that it is physically and logistically impossible. While I do think that it is fair enough to rule those things out on such grounds, it still does not make a positive case for individualism. So when various libertarians make a universality argument as if it is the be-all-end-all case for individualism, they are not exactly doing us a favor. At best, it is what might be called “necessary but not sufficient”, and it seems rather oversimplistic taken by itself, divorced from any broader social theory.
To be sure, perhaps people can be brought into a state of cognitive dissonance by pointing out inconsistencies in their political theories (plenty of people nominally value liberty, but inconsistently apply it to politics, and people do sometimes become libertarians precisely out of the cognitive dissonance produced by the realization of such an inconsistency). Nonetheless, the assumed values that are being universalized need to be substantiated on independant grounds. The fact that they are being consistently applied does not constitute their ultimate justification. It seems like it would only make sense to consistently apply them if one has reasons for their validity to begin with, and that requires a deeper investigation into values (which inherently strikes me as implying a need for certain considerations from “thickness”).
Universality Is Sometimes Too Rigid
On the other side of things, there is a context in which it seems quite clear that universality in the sense of an absolutist application of certain norms in all circumstances is completely counter-intuive to one’s best interest in certain situations. The particular context that I am thinking of is how well absolutism in property rights holds up when we start bringing in certain consequentialist and circumstantial considerations. Does it make sense to absolutely uphold property rights in all situations, even if this means choosing to die in the name of property rights? Danny Shahar, in a certain discussion elsewhere, brought up an interesting thought experiment that seem to indicate that the answer is “no”.
The thought experiment reduces to the issue of “lifeboat situations”. To paraphrase the scenario, suppose you are in the woods in a blizzard and are freezing to death. It is quite certain that you are very close to death, and you stumble upon an unoccupied cabin the woods that is owned by someone. It is about 99.99% likely that you will die soon if you do not make it into this cabin. You can either break into the cabin and save your life, or die. Now, does it really make sense for you choose to freeze to death in the name of property rights? Or does such a situation quite clearly indicate that your life is simply more valuable than abstaining from “tresspassing” or “breaking and entering”?
The idea that you are obligated to die in such a situation seems completely counter-intuitive – it seems like pretty much everyone would break in, including libertarians who claim to be absolutists about property rights. If we consistently adhere to the view that property rights are absolute in this sense, then we inherently must choose death and essentially brush off all circumstantial or “life boat” situations as either irrelevant or simply must be overidden by property rights by default. On the other hand, if we really value our own lives, then it makes the most sense to take the view that it is morally permissible to break into the cabin in the situation. From the point of view of “common sense”, dieing in the name of property rights in such a situation is simply absurd.
The kind of debate that this sparks is interesting. Various people will insist that the person who breaks into the cabin is liable for damages. Others fully agree that the person is liable for damages, but insist that it is morally permissible, and in fact the most reasonabe thing to do, for the person to break into the cabin. Some find this to be confusing, in that it is conceptualized as an “either or” kind of matter: either we must uphold property rights and hence insist that it is not permissible to break into the cabin, or we must insist that it is permissible to break into the cabin and abandon the entire concept of property rights. But this seems like a false dichotomy, since it is concievable for one to uphold both the owner’s right to demand restitution and the permissibility of the near-dead person to break in. It isn’t at all clear that siding with life in life-boat situations implodes property rights entirely, or that it necessarily excludes the possibility of nonetheless supporting the right of the owner to demand some kind of restitution.
A more infamous example of this sort of thing is Walter Block’s “flagpole scenario”, in which someone falls from a building top and manages to hang on for dear life by clinging to a flagpole on someone’s window sill. The person could concievably break through the window and save their life. In the article that this example comes from, Walter Block essentially insists that the person hanging from the flagpole is morally obligated to fall to their death, that it is sensible for the person who owns the building or the area in which the window sill is to demand that the poor fellow who is hanging from the flagpole let go. But this seems like a rather bizarre viewpoint to take. Who in their right mind would object to the poor fellow breaking the window and crawling through to save their life, and what kind of “owner” in their right mind would, being more or less aware of the nature of the situation, be so die-hard about their property right in a window that the poor fellow’s life doesn’t matter?
This scenario runs into the exact same issues as Shahar’s thought experiment. Many libertarians may tend to focus completely on the restitutional issue involved: that the person is obligated to pay restitution for breaking the window. And for the most part, those who are generally on the side of the fellow hanging from the flagpole don’t disagree with this, it’s just that it seems a bit odd to reduce the matter entirely to a question of property rights and restitution. It seems to miss the fundamental point completely, which is that when it comes to saving one’s life, the value of a property right in a window loses a lot of weight. It seems rather bizarre to only think of the owner’s right to demand restitution and to think nothing of the flag-pole-hanger’s life. “Common sense” would tend to concentrate on the flag-pole-hanger’s life, while the purely legal restitutional issue is an after-thought (or rather, an ex-post-facto issue rather than one that directly addresses the question).
As a practical matter, it doesn’t make sense to hold a theory that you yourself would cease to practise in a heartbeat given the right situation. And neither does it seem to make sense to abandon libertarian theory completely simply because of life-boat situations. Life-boat situations do not detonate all moral philosophies, it simply shows their limits. What this demonstrates is not any sort of inherent problem with libertarianism or the total anniliation of all concepts of property rights, but that absolutist propertarianism in particular reduces to absurdity in light of a broader sense of right and wrong. However, if conceptualized in a certain way, granting this point does not necessarily take away from a strong sense of libertarianism, it merely puts it in context.