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DDF vs BHL
Some years ago I got into a series of exchanges with a group self-identified as Bleeding Heart Libertarians (hereafter BHL), starting on a Cato Unbound forum, continued on our blogs. That is the origin of this post.
Cartoon Libertarians, Social Justice, and Bleeding Hearts
Social justice = the idea that coercive institutions can be legitimate (i.e., permissible) only if, under favorable circumstances, they can reasonably be expected to help ensure that most conscientious people will lead minimally decent lives.
(From Jason Brennan’s Facebook page)
social justice is a moral standard by which the institutions of a society can be evaluated on the basis of how well they serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged.
(Definition offered by Zwolinski and Tomasi in the course of the Cato Unbound exchange)
Jason Brennan, on his blog, took some of his fellow libertarians to task for “cartoony opinions on complex matters.” His list of examples started:
You might be a cartoon libertarian if:
1. You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today.
(followed by points 2-17)
While I agreed with many of his points, that was not one of them. If “social justice” has a definite meaning in philosophy, philosophers should be able to offer clear definitions and the definitions offered by different philosophers should be consistent with each other. As the quotes above, from two philosophers from the same faction of the same political movement, demonstrate, they are not. The first specifies that it is about coercive institutions, the second about institutions in general. The second makes the evaluation of a society depend on how well it serves the interests of the poor and least advantaged, the first makes it depend on maintaining a minimal standard for “conscientious people.” The poor and disadvantaged are not all conscientious, conscientious people are not all poor and disadvantaged. Both definitions look more like political rhetoric than political philosophy.
Not only are the definitions not consistent with each other, neither has a clear meaning. Consider, for instance, “minimally decent lives.” A modern making a list of the requirements would almost certainly include access to decent medical care. By that definition no human being prior to 1900 lived a minimally decent life, since what we consider reasonable medical care did not then exist.
The obvious response is that what is a minimally decent life changes over time. But that is to concede that the definition uses dishonest rhetoric, pretends that a relative concept is an absolute one. To say that the same life would be minimally decent if lived in 1700 but not if lived in 2000, is minimally decent in India but not in America, makes nonsense of the words “a minimally decent life.”
An egalitarian might say that what matters is not the absolute level but how equal the society is. A utilitarian could point out that what distribution of income maximizes utility depends, among other things, on how much income there is to be distributed. The BHL folks are unwilling to identify with either of those approaches and unwilling or unable to offer a substitute that means what it says.
To continue … . “Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged.” Depends entirely? Two societies are equally justified if they equally serve the interests of (say) the bottom 10% of the income distribution even if in one of them the rulers live a life of luxury supported by the taxes of everyone else above the bottom or if, in one, almost everyone above the bottom 10% is a (well taken care of) slave? Does Brennan think there is any human being who thinks none of that matters, that the moral justification of the institutions depends only on how well they serve the bottom of the distribution?
The obvious response is that advocates of social justice believe that the justification of the society depends in part on the implications for poor people. But so does very nearly everyone else. Utilitarians believe that the justification of the society depends on how well it serves everyone’s interests, the poor and disadvantaged included. Similarly for most alternative candidates. The concept that, according to Brennan, has a definite meaning in philosophy either has a meaning that nobody could take seriously or a meaning that distinguishes it from practically none of the alternative concepts. I agree with Jason that consequences matter, but that agreement does not define social justice.
To return to the first definition … . If “coercion” means the literal use of force, then fighting off a murderer or rapist counts as coercion, making a society that permits it a “coercive institution.” Does Brennan believe, does he think anyone believes, that permitting self-defense is only morally permissible if it helps “ensure that most conscientious people will lead minimally decent lives?" What if self-defense is relevant to only a few and most will get to live minimally decent lives without it? What if it is important only to people who would manage minimally decent lives even if they are not able to use force to defend themselves but much better lives if they are?
Brennan might reply, as would most libertarians, that using force in self-defense does not count as coercion. But that would bring him straight into one of the problems with libertarian theory that he is, I suspect, already aware of, perhaps more aware of than most. Libertarians say they are against the initiation of coercion, but what that means depends on what rights people have. If Brennan uses the same definition of rights as other libertarians for his definition of social justice, then his disagreement with them is not over social justice but over whether coercion is ever justified. If not, then what distinguishes Brennan et. al. is not their commitment to social justice but their view of what rights people have.
One of the things that bothered me in a later online exchange with Matt Zwolinski,1 another member of the same group, was his tendency to slide over from the right to use force to protect property in land, which raises serious moral issues since most land was not produced by humans,2 to the right to use force to protect property in general. Without a theory of what property claims are legitimate, one cannot distinguish the use of force to protect legitimate property from other and coercive uses, which gets us back to the idea that one is only permitted to fight off a murderer or rapist if doing so helps the poor or whoever would otherwise be at risk of not living a minimally decent life.
Jason was not merely claiming that his view that social justice had a definite meaning was defensible. He was claiming that it was so obviously true that to deny it was a cartoonish position. On the principle of tit for tat …
You might be a cartoon Bleeding Heart Libertarian if
1. You insist that the idea of social justice is well defined and prove it by offering two or more inconsistent definitions.
2. When asked in exactly what sense your philosophy implies a special concern for the poor, you change the subject.
3. Your explanations of why the views of other libertarians are wrong are clearer, better written, more convincing and much shorter than your explanations of what you believe and why it is right.
4. You describe John Rawls as offering the “philosophically most sophisticated” theory of social justice — and then decline to defend it when "David Friedman trenchantly critiques the maximin decision rule that lies at the heart of John Rawls’s theory of social justice."
Which brings us to …
John Rawls is a prominent political philosopher whose most famous contribution to the field is the difference principle, a rule which holds that a just society must produce the best possible result for whoever are its least well off members. The arguments for that claim were offered in A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. A review in The New York Times Book Review by Marshall Cohen, himself a prominent academic philosopher, described the book as providing a “bold and rigorous account” of “the principles to which our public life is committed,” and noted that other scholars had compared Rawls’ accomplishments to those of Mill and Kant.
The first step of the Rawlsian argument is to ask what principles all reasonable people would agree with in a hypothetical original position, one in which people knew nothing about what role they would occupy in the resulting society but knew all of the other relevant facts about economics, sociology, technology, and the like. He concluded that in that situation everyone would agree on a number of rules, one of which was that the outcome for the worst off people should be as high as possible, what Rawls referred to as a “maximin” choice rule, maximizing the minimum outcome.
I read the book a very long time ago, probably not long after it was published, and could never see why anyone took it seriously. The difference principle appeared to me to be pure assertion, the argument for it one that no reasonable person could agree with, since it assumes that, in the initial position, you would act as if you were certain to be the worst off person, would rather be randomly allocated to a role in a society where everyone makes $20,000/year than to one where one person makes $19,900 and everyone else makes $40,000.
When I expressed that view, asking why Brennan et. al. took Rawls seriously rather than applying to him the same standards they applied to an amateur philosopher such as Ayn Rand, Matt Zwolinski responded that while he did not agree with either the difference principle or Rawls’ derivation of it he thought it was defensible. He suggested that to understand why I should read an article on Rawls by Samuel Freeman in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I read the parts of that very long article that deal with justification for the difference principle and found no reason to alter my conclusion.
Rawls’ central argument (I quote Freeman’s summary) was that “given the enormous gravity of choice in the original position, plus the fact that the choice is not repeatable, it is rational for the parties to follow the maximin strategy when choosing between the principles of justice and principles of average or aggregate utility (or most any other principle).”
The decision of whom to marry is a real world decision that has the characteristics described, although in a somewhat weaker form — more so in past societies where divorce and remarriage was not an option. Does that imply that one should reject all possible brides for whom there is any chance at all that the marriage could go very badly in favor of whichever choice will be least bad if things go as badly as they possibly could? The conclusion would be that nobody should ever get married, since any marriage might fail and a sufficiently failed marriage is worse than staying single.
More than twenty years before Rawls published his book, the original position appeared in an article by John Harsanyi.3 Using Von Neumann’s definition of utility, under which an individual choosing under uncertainty prefers the option with the highest expected utility,4 Harsanyi reached the obvious conclusion: An individual choosing among the alternative futures implied by alternative sets of rules for society and knowing that he had an equal probability of ending up as anyone would see the utility of each future as the average of the utility of the lives lived in it. It followed that the set of social rules he would choose would be the one that maximized average utility. Rawls, unwilling to accept that conclusion, assumed instead that each individual would choose as if he were certain of being the worst off member of society and concluded that the best set of rules would be the one that left the worst off member with the best result.
Rawls offered other arguments for the difference principle but, so far as I could tell, none of them was an improvement. When, for instance, he asks how you would explain to a poor person that his interest was being sacrificed for that of someone better off than himself, the obvious response is to ask how you would explain to the better off person that his interest was being sacrificed to that of the poor person, especially if a huge amount of his interest was being sacrificed for a small benefit to the poor person as Rawls' argument implies it sometimes should be. Rawls’ argument takes for granted the conclusion it purports to justify, that the proper starting point is a society structured by his difference rule, hence that only departures from that count as sacrificing the good of some for the benefit of others. The conclusion reverses if we start instead with the society implied by Harsanyi’s rule and have to justify a policy that produces a small increase in the utility of someone at the bottom at the cost of a large decrease in the utility of someone a little better off.
Two Questions for Bleeding Heart Libertarians
Apropos of which, I put two simple questions to Jason et al:
1. Do you believe that the derivation of the rule that, as one of you put it, "lies at the heart of John Rawls’s theory of social justice," is more intellectually defensible than any of the items on Jason's list of criteria for recognizing a cartoon libertarian? Is his derivation of the minimax rule more defensible than the claim that "Ayn Rand’s critiques of Kant or Plato (or any philosopher, for that matter) are insightful." Than the claim that “'social justice' has no definite meaning in philosophy today." Than the claim that "there are no involuntary positive duties to others."
Supposing you are not willing to defend Rawls, at least to that limited extent, the obvious next question is:
2. Would you be willing to say that: “You may be a cartoon liberal if you think Rawls' argument for the minimax principle deserves respect.”
Preferably online or in print.
If the answer to both questions is "no" I do not see how you can defend yourself against the charge that you have a double standard, treat arguments made by academic philosophers, at least famous ones, with more respect than arguments made by other people even when both are equally bad.
Which is not, I think, consistent with justice in the ordinary sense of the term.
Matt responded that while he did not agree with Rawls’ derivation of the minimax rule it was more defensible than Rand’s critique of Kant and Plato, that while Rawls’ derivation of minimax was flawed, he offered other good arguments for the conclusion. Having looked, as he suggested, at Freeman’s article, I have been unable to find them, and neither Matt nor others have offered me any.
Matt also pointed out, correctly, that he had not called anyone a cartoon anything.
Jason Brennan, who had, responded that:
Rand’s critique of Kant is intellectual excrement. (As Rand would say, “Judge and prepare to be judged.”) Rand on Kant is like Naomi Klein on Milton Friedman or Corey Robin on Hayek. In contrast, Rawls’s defense of the Difference Principle is not fully compelling because there are some important objections and questionable assumptions.
"Not fully compelling" implies that it is a pretty good argument with problems. But the central assumption of the argument is that someone who knows he will live a life in a society but does not know which will choose as if he is certain to live the worst life. No justification is provided for that assumption, on which the entire argument rests. Does Jason think there are pretty good, if not entirely compelling, arguments for it? Would he like to offer some?
If not, I do not see why he regards that argument as more defensible than the (bad) arguments Rand offers for her views. He goes into some detail on what is wrong with Rand's critique of Kant and very likely he is correct. But his rebuttal of Rand depends on an analysis of what Kant meant in parts of his writing. My rebuttal of Rawls is more nearly on the level of "his argument assumes that 2+2=5."
In his cartoon libertarian post, Jason offered a quote from Edith Watson Schipper:
Reasons are the coin by which we pay for the beliefs we hold. People who strongly hold strong beliefs on bad reasons haven’t paid the bill.
In the same post (on his blog), Jason argued that even if social justice does not have a precise meaning, it describes a cluster of related ideas and so is as precise as other terms used in philosophy. A simple test of that claim is whether he can use his definition to say what is a theory of social justice and what is not, and he attempted to do so. To illustrate the failure of that attempt, I offer three quotes from his post:
1. “Theories of social justice focus on the idea that moral justification of coercive institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor or least advantaged.”
2. “Few advocates of social justice think this is the only criterion of legitimacy or justice.”
3. “The most basic form of utilitarianism is a theory of distributive justice but not social justice, because it has no special concern for the poor or least advantaged.”
Point 2 implies that serving the interests of the poor or least advantaged only has to be one of the things determining justice, not the only thing. Utilitarianism has no special concern for the utility of the poor or least advantaged but it includes their utility in the total (or average) it is maximizing, hence the serving of their interests is one of the things determining justice for a utilitarian. If the poor do worse in society A than in society B and everyone else does exactly as well, then A is worse than B.
To avoid this conclusion, Jason had to introduce the requirement of "special concern for the poor or least advantaged" (italics mine). I had raised the question of what that meant in my earlier exchange with two of his fellow BHL’s and got the following response:
As David notes, utilitarians care about the poor in the same way they care about everyone else: their interests are to be taken into consideration equally along with the interests of everyone else. Advocates of social justice, in contrast, seem to care about the poor in a deeper sort of way: in Rawls’ version, the interests of the least well-off have a very strong moral priority over the interests of everyone else.
This is a fine and important distinction for philosophers to make. But it’s worth noting that for most of the real world problems that the classical liberals were concerned about, it is a distinction without a difference. ...
And, in the rest of their reply, they never explained what a special concern means.
In fact, utilitarian arguments do suggest a special concern for the material welfare of the poor, since they can be expected to get more utility from a dollar’s worth of income than the rich, implying that a change that benefits a poor person by a hundred dollars and costs a rich person a hundred and ten probably produces an increase in total utility, hence is desirable in utilitarian terms. It appears to follow that, contrary to point 3, utilitarianism is (among other things) a theory of social justice.
Aside from giving me an opportunity to get back at Jason for implying that I, or some of my friends, might be cartoons, why does all of this matter? My criticism of the concept of social justice arose in the context of my attempt to get the Bleeding Heart Libertarians to give a clear answer to the question of how their view of libertarianism differed from the views of other libertarians, in particular mine. Part of the answer seemed to be that they thought libertarians should make more of a point of the fact that a libertarian society would be good for (among others) the poor. But that is a difference in rhetoric not content, since essentially all libertarians agree with the claim.
The other part was that they wanted to incorporate social justice into libertarian philosophy, so I tried to get them to tell me what "social justice" meant. To put some substance into the concept, one needs more than concern for the poor, one needs a special concern for the poor, so I asked them to explain what that meant and they didn't.
Part of what is interesting about Rawls is that he does answer that question — his concern for the poor is very special indeed, giving their welfare infinite weight relative to that of anyone else. Brennan, Zwolinksi and Tomasi all speak respectfully of him, but none is willing to adopt his answer. That leaves their position as the combination of a critique of the hard line natural rights version of libertarianism, a critique I agree with and made in print a very long time ago,5 with language about caring for the poor whose content they are unwilling or unable to explain, at least to me.
One final digression, having to do with my interest in moral philosophy. What originally intrigued me about both Rand and Rawls was their claim to have solved Hume's is/ought problem, to have offered a rational argument for normative conclusions based on positive facts — I think a stronger claim in Rand's version than in Rawls'. I concluded that both claims were bogus. Not only does each of them present a chain of argument with at least one gaping hole, both try to paper over the hole with rhetoric, Rand more entertainingly than Rawls. Readers interested in my view of that feature of Rand's work will find it in Chapter 59 of the third edition of my Machinery of Freedom. My own approach to the problem of deriving moral rules, Intuitionism, was described in my post on moral realism.
Having tried unsuccessfully to get a clear definition of “social justice” from libertarian philosophers, let me end by offering mine. It is based not on philosophy but on observed usage, twenty-three years on the faculty of a university that was very strong on social justice. I too can offer two definitions:
1. Social justice means ideas of justice that especially appeal to people on the left.
2. Social justice consists of asking, in response to any proposal on any subject, how it affects the poor.
For anyone who would like to follow the argument from its beginning, here are the relevant links:
The Cato Unbound discussion: Where Next? The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Liberalism
Matt's post to Libertarianism.com: Liberty and Property
My response: Getting the Property Problem Wrong
His response to me: More on Property, Freedom, and Coercion
Another post by him: Against Moralized Freedom
My response: Is All Freedom Equal?
Matt's response: Conceptual Claims Aren’t Moral Claims: Why Not All Freedom Matters Equally
Jason's "cartoon libertarian" post: Why Talk about “Cartoon Libertarianism”?
My first response: Cartoon Libertarians, Social Justice, and Bleeding Hearts
My second response: A Question for Bleeding Heart Libertarians
Jason's response to me: Defining Social Justice, Etc.
My reresponse: Jason Brennan Defends, I Reply
More can be found on the comment threads to some of those posts. Matt defended his position at length in comments on my second response.
Harsanyi, John C. "Cardinal Utility in Welfare Economics and in the Theory of Risk-taking." Journal of Political Economy 61, no. 5 (1953): 434-35. Accessed July 30, 2020. .
Chapter 13. Friedman, David, Price Theory: An Intermediate Text, contains a more detailed explanation.
Santa Clara University, the same university at which Matt Zwolinsky was an undergraduate.