Slogans and Wars

Activists like slogans, and some slogans are accurate, but philosophical positions are often too nuanced to be captured in a bumper-sticker-length slogan.   So in several recent online discussions in which I’ve attempted to explain why Israel is justified in responding to attacks by Hamas, I’ve encountered people saying that because they’re libertarian, they are anti-war, and therefore I must be a bad libertarian.  That’s wrong, and one reason it goes wrong has to do philosophy’s resistance to bumper-sticker sloganeering.

To begin with, saying “war is unjust” is some kind of category error, along the lines of saying “physical force is unjust.”  Wait, the bumper-sticker objects, I thought libertarians were opposed to physical force.  This move elides the moral significance of the distinction between the use of force in aggression and the use of force in defense.  If Bob starts hitting Bill and Bill hits Bob back, they’re both using physical force.  But that doesn’t make them morally equivalent, and this shows why it’s a conceptual mistake to say that “hitting is unjust”: if Bob’s hitting is unjust (aggression), then Bill’s hitting is just (defense).   “Hitting” alone isn’t just or unjust, until we know who is committing aggression, the initiation of force, to violate someone’s rights, and who is using force defensively, to protect their rights.  Libertarianism isn’t about hitting, it’s about rights.  Similarly, saying “war is unjust” misses the important distinction between aggression and defense.  If Sylvania invades Freedonia, say because the former wants to annex the latter to obtain raw materials, Sylvania’s action is unjust.  But that implies that Freedonia’s use of arms to repel the unjust invasion is just.  So the question “is this war just?” is poorly formed.  It’s unjust for the one to have attacked, and (therefore!) just for the other to respond.

Of course, there are complicating variables, so it’s sometimes harder than it first appears to assess justice.  (See my “War and Liberty,” Reason Papers 26, Spring 2006; can’t hyperlink for some reason but it is online.)  But the point I’m making here is that the slogan doesn’t even come close to capturing the variables.   At this point in the argument, someone objects that because there may be harm to innocents, the analogy from Bob and Bill to Sylvania and Freedonia doesn’t work.  But it’s not that the analogy doesn’t work, it’s that there are other factors to be added to the evaluation.  The analogy works in skeletal form – an unjust aggression may be justly opposed – but it’s true that military action carries increased risk of harm to innocents.  This isn’t a particularly novel observation, though, nor is it something that only a libertarian would think of.  It’s been a principle of ethical theory about warfare for centuries.  So it’s true that assessing the morality of a conflict has to involve the degree to which both parties take care to minimize harm to noncombatants.  But here too, the moral assessment is not unitary: if Sylvania is indiscriminate in attacking but Freedonia avoids targeting civilians, we’d say “Sylvania is fighting unjustly” and also “Freedonia is fighting justly.”

Another objection that is largely a red herring is to note that it’s states that go to war, and the fighting is thus subsidized by involuntarily-collected taxes.  I certainly agree that states shouldn’t do this.   But not everything that a state does is illegitimate per se.  There are state activities that would be morally legitimate if not done by the state, so it’s only that the state is doing them that makes them bad.  If it’s already bad, then it’s bad for the state to do it (for example, private citizens owning slaves is morally wrong, so for the state to enslave people is also wrong).  But if it’s morally permissible to do a thing, then the wrongness of the state doing it comes from libertarian objections about the nature of state activity.  For example, the occupation of firefighter is morally legitimate, so to complain about state-run fire departments is not to object to firefighting per se, but to the scope of state power.  (See also: teaching.)  So the fact that states engage in macro-level self defense is not wrong because defending yourself is wrong, but because of some theory about the proper scope of state power.  But while we’re arguing about the proper theory of the scope of state power, firefighters are doing a good thing, not a bad thing, when they go put out fires.  And Freedonia’s army is doing a good thing, not a bad thing, when it  repels Sylvania’s invasion.

Sylvania, of course, is doing something wrong: invading Freedonia.  This aggression would be wrong even if it were some non-state entity – it is just like Bob’s attack on Bill.  Bob is wrong to attack Bill.  Sylvania is wrong to invade Freedonia.  Bill is right to fight back; Freedonia is right to fight back.

Now to the extent that the “I’m anti-war” sloganeering is useful, it’s going to be useful in places like Sylvania: making the argument that aggression is unjust, that launching a war is wasteful of resources, that attacks like this are callous about human life.  Libertarians in Sylvania ought to make it clear to their leaders that they oppose the war.  But Freedonians, even libertarian Freedonians, are not bound to say “we should stop fighting”; they have the right to defend themselves.  Remember, just because Bill is a peace-loving person doesn’t mean Bob won’t attack him.  Similarly, a society that eschews aggression may nevertheless find itself attacked.  Some of the people I’ve argued with about this will point out the number of times the US has engaged in warfare that couldn’t plausibly be described as self-defense, as if this were some sort of “gotcha” moment that proves I’m bad at libertarianing.  But this is to confuse history and philosophy.  I’m perfectly aware that the US has acted badly in the past.  But that doesn’t imply that it’s always in the wrong, and more to the point, it doesn’t disprove the normative argument about the legitimacy of self-defense.   So we often end up with something like:
Me: People have a right to defend themselves when attacked.
Other person: Tommy is an aggressive bully.  Carl often starts fights.
Me: ???

Maybe this would fit on a bumper sticker: We should oppose starting wars, but we are not obligated to eschew self-defense.

Congressional SnowFlakes

I wasn’t going to write anything about this as it seemed too obvious to comment on, but I haven’t seen others do so—and it is worth noticing.

There has been, and continues to be, talk about college students and people on the left as “snow flakes” and weak/soft/thin-skinned, too easily hurt by speakers on campus. The extent to which college students take offense at comments may (or not) be greater than it was in the past. Last week, though, we saw Republican Congresspeople doing the same thing. See this.

Liz Cheney has been telling the truth about the 2020 election and (some of) the lies coming from Donald Trump and his sycophants. She has not, so far as I have seen, been particularly rude about it. She has simply pointed out that some people seem intent on enabling and spreading Trump’s lies. The response includes claims of being offended and “hurt.” (TN Rep. Chuck Fleishmann: “It hurt me very much.” A lobbyist: “what she’s said was offensive to me, and many others.”)

It is not unusual on college campuses to hear claims that speech can harm so badly that we should not only be concerned, but also set policies to prevent such. Speech codes were/are meant to prevent harm. This is the sort of concept creep—where we talk of things previously thought non-harmful as harmful—that I worried about in my Toleration and Freedom from Harm and that Frank Furedi worried about in his On Tolerance.

Furedi’s concern was with acceptance of a “transformation of distress into a condition of emotional injury” (106) that would be used to justify interference meant to silence discussions that might somehow endanger those offended (or those they pretend to protect). A standard response is that such people are too weak to hear (or have others hear) anything that might offend them, cause them to doubt themselves, or that simply might not put them in the best light. Cheney is clearly not putting most of those in her party in the best light and offending some to the point of “hurt.” One wonders if her detractors will try to pass some sort of congressional speech code.

Collective vs. Individual Risk Assessment: An Illustration

This is a guest post by John Hasnas (Georgetown University)


I move between two worlds. I work at Georgetown University in Washington, DC and I live in the Lake Barcroft community in Northern Virginia. The former is governed by the collective risk assessment made by the government of the District of Columbia and the University. The latter is largely governed by the individual risk assessments made by the residents. The former is a sad, lonely, and oppressive place. The latter is a cheerful, friendly, happy place.

This semester I have been teaching a hybrid class at the Georgetown Law Center. Entering the building in the hours before class is like stepping into the twilight zone episode, “Where Is Everybody?” in which Earl Holliman wanders through a totally deserted city. The class is held, not in a classroom, but in a large auditorium, which in pre-pandemic times seated 328 people. Now a maximum of 35 out of the 105 enrolled students sit in their own 42 square foot bubbles. The students, all of whom have tested negative for the coronavirus, are required to wear masks at all times and are not permitted to eat or drink in the building. During the 10 minute break in the 2 hour class, they must stand on little blue circles on the floor separated by 6 feet when they talk to each other. The law school encourages students and staff who observe violations of these rules to report the offenders who may then be barred from campus. Some of my students were reported for taking their masks off to eat or drink during the break and for standing too close to each other. I have been fully vaccinated since March 13, but I must teach wearing a mask.

The Lake Barcroft community surrounds a lake that has several artificially created beaches. Sunday was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in Northern Virginia. I decided to take a kayak out onto the lake for relaxation and little exercise. When I got to the beach it was filled with people. Families were playing together. Kids were wading and paddling around on kayaks and paddle boards. Several groups of friends, both teenagers and adults, were socializing together or playing frisbee or spike ball. There was laughter. And nary a mask in sight.

On the other hand, on my way to the beach, I passed individuals and couples who were out for a walk by themselves, some wearing masks, some not. Some of these crossed the street to make sure they did not come too close to me. Everyone nodded or waved hello as we passed.

I am fairly certain that my students and I would behave differently if we were free to make our own risk assessments. I believe that several of my students who are aware that everyone in the room has tested negative for Covid would sit closer together, socialize more in the break, and perhaps not wear masks. I certainly would not wear a mask when teaching. Having been both vaccinated and tested negative, I do not believe I am at risk myself or pose a significant risk to the students, the nearest of whom are several yards away from me. Of course, some of the students who come to class might not be comfortable with such conduct, and may decide to stop attending in person and join the rest of the class who are taking the course online. The two groups would be the analog of the people happily congregating at the beach and those walking alone along the street.

When we are free to make risk assessments for ourselves, we consider not only the danger to be avoided, but also the cost of what we must give up to avoid it. When risk assessments are made collectively, all that is considered is what will most effectively reduce the danger. There is no way to consider the varied personal cost felt by each individual and no incentive to do so. This is a rather mundane observation. But as I move between my classroom at Georgetown and the beach at Lake Barcroft, I feel its profound effect on the happiness of those in each camp.

Moralism and Busybodies: From Community to Police State

In previous posts (for example, here), I have discussed what seems to me an extremely worrisome form of legal moralism wherein people essentially invoke “community” as a moral good in order to instantiate what they want regardless of what others in their supposed communities prefer.  Put differently, they think interference with your activities is warranted simply to maintain or promote the existence of a community they value, whether or not you or anyone else values the sort of community they do.  They might want a neighborhood community where all of the houses are painted the same color or that have the same flowers in front, for examples.  Should you want a different color paint or different type of flower, it’s too bad for you.  These are examples you might hear of in a Homeowners or Condo Association, and are fairly insignificant.  Indeed, in an HOA or a COA, where the rules are in the legal documents, I’d suggest there is no problem at all—because living in an HOA or a COA entails voluntary agreement to the terms of those documents.

These sorts of rules, though, might exist in neighborhoods lacking such an agreement.  Sometimes neighbors simply pressure each other to not use some paint colors, for example, in order to prevent reductions in property values.  While annoying, even these aren’t the sorts of problems I really worry about—perhaps because the claims involved aren’t—and aren’t meant to be—moral claims.  When the same dynamics involve moral claims, the intensity of demands and thus disagreements are often worse.

The general problem is what we euphemistically call “busy bodies.”*  These are people who think they should not only pay attention to your life, but also think they should tell you what to do.  Often, such people mean well.  They are simply trying to help.  Some busybodies cross a line, however, by not merely offering advise but demanding your compliance.  They might demand you not paint your house a certain way, for example, explaining that it will hurt property values and then adding that if you did it anyway, you would be failing in your obligations to your neighbors (see this for a related amusing story).  In what such obligations are grounded, though, they don’t say. 

This is still a minor issue—it’s just painting your house.  But busybodies might also come and tell you how to discipline your child—and again, while this can be done in a friendly “here’s some advice, take it or leave it” way, it can also be done as a demand based in some unstated moral view.  They might insist, for example, that your child not be allowed to play in the woods, be left alone, climb a wall, or ride a specific type of bike.  They might say “if you do allow those things, you are a bad parent; good parents don’t behave that way.”  (Of course, about some things they may well be right.)

Make no mistake, some people have no problem interfering with the lives of others; some are naturally interventionist. They think they know how other people should live. They think they know how you and I should live. And, very importantly, they believe the government should make us do what they think we should do and disallow us doing what they think we should not.  Here’s where we get the biggest problems—problems that arise from further steps along a path to authoritarianism.  From encouraging people to maintain their homes for simple practical reasons or offering (even undesired) parenting advise, to claiming we have duties to follow such advice, to seeking governmental power to force compliance, we have a spectrum of activities that are worrisome. 

To make the point clear, consider that some people believe smoking tobacco cigarettes—perhaps especially menthol flavored—is not only bad for you, but also (perhaps for that reason) immoral.  And that some people (President Biden) are perfectly happy to use government power to enforce your compliance—all for your own good.  The U.S. FDA’s stance on this is clear:

Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives … With these actions, the FDA will help … address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products,” said Acting FDA Commissioner J. Woodcock, M.D.

Should any of us, including people in communities of color, low-income populations, or amongst LGBTQ+ individuals, think the benefits of smoking outweigh the costs for us, its too bad for us.  The busybodies are perfectly willing to use their power to bully the rest of us.  Such people do not mind sending police to arrest you should you try to sell single cigarettes, sell any without a license you’ve paid them for, or even for smoking one in your own home.  They will also not mind putting you in prison for failing to comply—or killing you on a street corner. (See this, if the story does not sound familiar.)

We should not think, though, that this is just about government.  Busybodies are often willing to use any sort of organization to make others comply with their desires. They are more than willing to vote to limit your ability to do what you want, of course.  But they are also quite willing to work to impose such restrictions in the workplace or neighborhood. They have no compunction against encouraging the boss to set policies that limit your ability to do what you want. They don’t mind petitioning a business to stop performing a service you enjoy or to stop selling a product you like.  They certainly don’t mind having the government make activities you enjoy illegal or limited.  What they seek is a society they like, regardless of what you or anyone else likes.  If some people must be imprisoned or killed for the cause, they seem to think that is simply a cost of attaining a good community or society. 

*See Antony Davies and James Harrigan’s Cooperation and Coercion: How Busybodies Became Busybullies and What that Means for Economics and Politics for more on the general problem.