Category Archives: Ethical Issues

Personal Responsibility, Moralism, and The American Right

Consider the idea that individuals ought to try to be self-reliant, willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their loved ones.  This used to be thought of as a reason to oppose state assistance (welfare, food stamps, etc.), and so a reason to oppose “liberals” of the sort in the US Democratic party.  Those liberals, the story goes, pushed the view that the government was there to ensure your well-being, enabling you to reject personal responsibility. 

Notice, though, that a central tenet of the new American right—common to former President Trump’s followers and many of those who rejected him—is a hostility toward and skepticism of immigrants. Those with this skeptical stance seem to believe immigrants are somehow likely to be criminals, simply too different from us to be allowed to join our society, likely to try to replace Christianity as the main religion, or likely to take “our” jobs.

This anti-immigrant stance, it seems to me, is quite opposed to an ideal of self-reliance. Instead of relying on themselves for their well-being, these opponents of immigration allow themselves to be upset about immigrants and happily rely on the federal government to keep out foreigners—as a way of (supposedly) protecting their (or what they see as “our”) well-being, which it seems, is too fragile to deal with immigrants.

While protection from genuine (harmful) criminal activity is always a reasonable concern, there is little reason to believe immigrants are more likely to engage in such behavior than are than non-immigrants. (See this and this, for some discussion.) But leave that aside; it’s clearly not the only concern and its not an invocation of a nanny state (nor of moralism).

Many of those who oppose immigrants seem to think they are simply too different from “us” or are likely to be committed to a religion that would compete with Christianity in some problematic way. They think that their (or “our”) way of life must be protected; they may think our Christian (or, they might say, “Judeo-Christian”) values must be protected.

Finally, these opponents of immigration may think immigrants will take their jobs (or the jobs of other compatriots)—and thus want the government to keep out immigrants as a way of protecting “American jobs” (and salaries), and thus, their well-being and that of their fellow “real” Americans. Such people seem to fear they cannot compete with immigrants in the picture—either for the jobs they currently have but fear immigrants will take, or for other jobs they might apply for.

My point here is that those on the right adopting an anti-immigrant stance seem happy to rely on the federal government to guarantee or at least promote their welfare. They worry about the erosion of “the American way” and want the federal government to assist them in fending off that erosion. This is not being self-reliant. Self-reliance in this picture would be to think something like “well, things change; I will change along with them as needed.”

One possible response to what I’ve said would be something: “Look, one happy side-effect of keeping out immigrants is (we think) that we do better, but that isn’t why we want them kept out (or ‘limited to legal immigration’—but when the laws are made more and more constraining, there is no real difference). We don’t want them kept out to protect us as individuals, but to protect (as you said) the American way and Christian values. So it’s not about rejecting personal responsibility at all.”

If the response works, it shows that the criticism of rejecting self-reliance and welcoming the nanny state (that the right has traditionally criticized) is not a fair criticism of the anti-immigrant right. It would, though, leave the anti-immigrant right wholeheartedly endorsing a moralism of the sort that I have discussed in previous posts (for example, here). It leaves them committed to a goal of getting other people to do, believe, or live as they want, without any concern for those others as individuals or the rights they supposedly believe we all have. The goal is just to impose their preferred way of life on others. The desire some of us might have to marry or hire someone from another country is simply deemed unworthy.

In a nutshell, the anti-immigrant stance by those on the right commits them to either preferring a particular sort of nanny state that protects them from cultural changes, challenges to their religious beliefs, and competition for jobs OR its a disturbing moralism that demands legal assistance to protect the “moral fabric of society” where that “fabric” is really just their preferred way of life without those cultural changes, challenges to their religious beliefs, and increased competition for jobs. Stated that way, the two options seem not very different. The moralism is, after all, an insistence that the their desired way of life be imposed because they like it and the way of life it provides them–so the nanny state ought to protect it. It might be pitched in terms of what is good for society overall rather than what is good for some group of individuals, but that pitch is exceedingly weak. None of this should be acceptable to those advocating personal responsibility, self-reliance, and individualism.

*Note: Thanks to A.I. Cohen and J.P. Messina for comments on a draft of this post.

For more on immigration, see Bryan Caplan’s book and, very soon, Chandran Kukathas’s. (RCL earns commissions if you buy from these links; commissions support this site; we make no profit from them.)

The goal of corporations should not be maximizing profit for shareholders

Back in 2019, the Business Roundtable, a nonprofit whose membership comprises most of the US’s top CEOs, issued a statement endorsing the view that the purpose of the business corporation is to deliver value to all stakeholders, not just to advance the interests of shareholders. The World Economic Forum, best known for hosting an annual winter meeting in Davos, Switzerland for bigwigs from business, international politics, and journalism, has also declared its allegiance to the stakeholder approach to corporate governance. Some advocates have celebrated these announcements as a shift toward a more enlightened form of capitalism.

Classical liberals and defenders of free markets are suspicious of stakeholder capitalism–rightly so, in my view. The relationship between a corporation’s management (i.e., its officers and directors) and its shareholders differs in important respects from the relationship between a corporation’s management and its non-shareholder stakeholders. Notably, management has a fiduciary duty to run the firm according to the interests of its shareholders that does not apply to non-shareholder stakeholders. Stakeholder approaches to corporate governance deny this, or at least neglect it.

But market-sympathizing skeptics of stakeholder theory go too far when they insist that the only proper goal for a corporation’s management is to maximize profit for shareholders. In his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing stakeholder capitalism, Alexander Salter writes that profits “are an elegant and parsimonious way of promoting efficiency within a business as well as society as large.” I agree with that. But Salter continues: “Stakeholder capitalism ruptures this process. When other goals compete with the mandate to maximize returns, the feedback loop created by profits gets weaker.”

It is one thing to claim that the profit motive is an important component of a proper understanding of business corporations, or that management of a corporation owes a fiduciary duty to shareholders. An adequate understanding of corporate purpose clearly needs to account for these facts. However, it is quite another thing to say that corporate purpose boils down to a mandate to maximize returns for shareholders. This is not a defensible claim, and defenders of market institutions and the profit motive should stop making it.

Consider the following cases, which are stylized simplifications of real life situations:

  1. The e-cigarette company Juul can either (a) maximize profit by maximizing its appeal to potential young smokers, developing flavors and social media marketing strategies that appeal to adolescents and young adults (who, if addicted to nicotine at a young age, are likely to remain customers of nicotine products for the rest of their lives), or (b) settle for less profit by eschewing the younger demographic, and actively seeking market share only among older cigarette smokers for whom e-cigarettes function mainly as a replacement for smoking combustible tobacco.
  2. River Blindness is a disease caused by a parasitic worm that results in severe discomfort and, eventually, blindness. The drug company Merck has discovered a new drug, Mectizan, that prevents River Blindness. However, Merck knows it will not be profitable to bring Mectizan to market–River Blindness is only common in economically less-developed countries in the tropics, and those who suffer from River Blindness are too poor to pay a price for treatment drugs such that it would be profitable for Merck to produce them. Merck can either (a) maximize profit by not devoting any further resources to developing and producing Mectizan, or (b) settle for less profit by devoting some of its resources to developing, producing, and distributing Mectizan.

It seems to me that there is a strong argument to be made that the right choice in both of these cases is (b), the non-profit maximizing choice. At least, that’s my intuition. Intuitions about cases like these seem to provide reason to doubt that we can reduce business ethics to shareholder value maximization. If I am right, it is not just that there are moral and legal restrictions on what firms can do in pursuit of profit maximization—which I take to be obvious—but that the very idea of profit maximization is misguided way to understand what the purpose of corporations should be. 

Of course, when we’re trying to adopt well-justified ethical beliefs, intuitions are more like the first words than last words, and further reflection may prove our intuitions wrong. So let me briefly consider, and respond to, a few objections.

 A defender of shareholder value maximization might argue that cases like the Juul scenario can be addressed by adding constraints to the imperative to maximize profit. People who say corporations should maximize shareholder value don’t think corporations can employ just any means at their disposal for the sake of profits: Milton Friedman , for example, in his famous essay in defense of the profit motive, mentions rules “embodied in the law and those embodied in ethical custom” as legitimate constraints on profit-seeing. The US and many other countries already have laws in place prohibiting marketing and selling nicotine products to youth. Those who advocate shareholder value maximization defend pursuing profits within the rules of the game established by the law. So they arguably have the resources to justify choice (b) in the Juul case.

There are a couple of issues with this response. First, it seems to rely on an unduly optimistic picture of laws and law-making processes in the real world. We can’t depend on flawed political systems to establish definitively what kinds of business conduct are beyond the ethical pale—in a world in which some laws are unjust, it’s naive and dangerous to rely too heavily on the law as a minimal baseline for morality. Second, even if there are laws prohibiting marketing and selling tobacco products to individuals under the ages of 18 or 21, that doesn’t mean that it is straightforwardly permissible to attempt to maximize returns by figuring out the most effective ways to get 19 or 22 year-olds addicted to your product. It may be permissible to sell addictive nicotine products to young adults of a certain age—I think it is, at some point—but that doesn’t mean that the right way to approach such transactions is to try to literally maximize the profit they generate. Of course, defenders of shareholder value maximization could follow Friedman and appeal to ethical custom, in addition to the law, as a legitimate source of ethical constraint on profit maximization. But then there’s some serious work to do in specifying the content of these ethical customs. And, of course, the resulting view is going to be pretty different from what most people are likely to understand when somebody says that the only proper purpose of corporations is to maximize profits.

Unlike the Juul case, case 2 involving Merck doesn’t just implicate constraints on how profit may be pursued. Justifying non-profit maximizing choice (b) in the Merck case would seem to require endorsing Merck’s pursuit of a goal other than profit maximization, rather than just endorsing a constraint on how Merck may permissibly pursue profit.

Defenders of shareholder value maximization might say that, while producing Mectizan seems like a nice thing for Merck to do, it’s not the proper function of a shareholder-oriented corporation like Merck to be diverting some of its resources from profitable employments expected to produce returns for shareholders to charitable employments that are not.

I’ve already said that I agree that an adequate normative account of organizations like Merck requires recognizing a fiduciary duty on the part of management to run the organization in a way that’s broadly in the interests of shareholders—we should not expect companies like Merck to mainly pursue charitable initiatives. But what reason do we have for thinking that it is never even permissible for companies like Merck to devote corporate resources to good charitable causes, as a commitment to shareholder value maximization would appear to imply?

Some people think that the answer is found in the law: corporations are under a legal obligation to maximize shareholder value. But that’s not true. Neither state corporate law, nor typical corporate charters, impose a legal duty on corporate managers to maximize returns for shareholders. In fact, corporate law contains a well-established doctrine called the business judgment rule, which holds that courts will not second-guess decisions made by a corporation’s board of directors, even when those decisions predictably reduce profit or share value (as long as the board makes reasonable efforts to become informed and avoids personal conflicts of interest).

Some people think that shareholder value maximization is required because corporations are owned by shareholders. But the legal ownership rights shareholders have over corporations are highly attenuated: (1) they are residual claimants (i.e., if the corporation is wound down, they are entitled to whatever, if anything, is left over after it has met all of its contractual obligations), and (2) they have the right to elect and remove directors. Even these rights are extremely limited: for example, in practice, the costs of mounting a proxy battle for corporate board seats are insurmountable for dispersed shareholders. So it does not appear that shareholders’ ownership of the corporation, such as it is, can justify shareholder value maximization in a way that avoids begging the question.

It may well be permissible to establish and run a corporation that adopts shareholder value maximization as its single goal (provided that the corporation also adopts appropriate constraints on how that goal will be pursued). But defenders of shareholder value maximization argue for something stronger: that it is impermissible for corporations to adopt goals other than maximizing shareholder value. But why should we think that? What is wrong with people voluntarily coming together to participate in a corporate entity that adopts the goal of seeking profit along with other goals (e.g., for Merck, improving “the health and wellness of people and animals worldwide”). It seems, well, illiberal to insist that the only goal that corporations may adopt is maximizing shareholder value. Says who? On what authority?

To return to the point from Salter’s op-ed, it may well be the case that agency costs make it difficult to effectively monitor and control the management of firms that adopt multiple goals, rather than the single goal of maximizing profit. But it’s an empirical question whether some business organizations are able to successfully overcome this impediment to effectively serving their goals. The point about agency costs, though important, does not allow us to dismiss the possibility of an efficient and effective corporation that pursues goals other than just profit a priori.

Critics of stakeholder models of corporate governance are right to highlight how stakeholder views fail to account for the importance of the profit motive in market contexts, or for the special fiduciary duty that corporate management owes to shareholders. But we can recognize these truths without adopting the extreme and untenable position that the only thing corporations should be doing is maximizing the value they deliver to their shareholders.

I would like to dedicate this post to Waheed Hussain, who died recently at a tragically young age. Waheed was a philosopher at the University of Toronto. His writings about business ethics, including an article referenced in the post above, have taught me a lot over the years.

I would also like to thank Andrew J. Cohen for his feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

Why aren’t more women Libertarians?

Clearly, climate is an issue and one that should be addressed by everyone.  Libertarians want less government and fewer laws, which means that civil society – communities, organizations, families – needs to take on roles that government has taken on.  That means using our influence to dissuade others from poor behavior: holding ourselves to high standards of behavior, critiquing harmful and rude behavior out loud, restraining those who persist in poor behavior from opportunities to do so.  

So why aren’t more women committed to libertarianism?

Women are pros at building and maintaining civil society. Women still complete a disproportionate share of household chores for their own families, giving up their leisure and market work time to raise children and care for elderly parents.  Women are more likely to attend religious services regularly. Women are more likely to volunteer.   I presume that women engage in other community building activities more often, too, even when it’s not well measured in surveys.  Neighbor had surgery? A woman probably baked that casserole or organized that meal train to bring over for dinner.   Spouse is sick?  A woman probably took your kids out for the day to give you time to rest.[1]  Christmas and New Years’ cards, birthday greetings, celebration planning – all those interactions that maintain connections among friends and family are more often made by women.  

Consider a thought experiment of what might change as government shrunk. Certainly, I expect entrepreneurs to deliver some services – more private security, more private schools, health care services produced and priced for lower income households, and the like.  And, given the literature on crowd out (here or here or here, for example), I expect philanthropists to expand their charitable endeavors when government reduces its transfer activities.  Given opportunities to retain more of their earned income, generous people in our communities would give more, and more effectively, to help the less fortunate.

Less government increases the need for civil society in all its forms: charitable organizations of all sorts, religious institutions, civic institutions (like Rotary International), community groups, professional organizations, and more.  One hesitation some might have about the feasibility of less government is whether and how much groups like these will step up to help the less fortunate.  And, like many courses of action that liberty-lovers advance, it is impossible to say for sure what will emerge. Spontaneous order is annoying like that. 

But women know this: they know they’ll step into the gaps.  Cooking extra to bring to the neighbor in need. Organizing a coat drive for the trailer park residents as winter approaches.  Checking on the elderly neighbor for a chat and to make sure her heat functions, then sending an older child over to shovel snow from her driveway. Filling the Little Free Pantries and Little Free Libraries around town. Women are the backbone of civil society.   Women build the trust and the community and care for their friends and neighbors.  We know these transfers of time, money, energy, and love can happen in a free society. Because they happen every day. 

I suspect many women understand that, unless more men step up to the community-building plate, that less government means more unpaid, and too often unrecognized, work for women. I suspect some turn away from smaller government ideas, not eager for more of this load of worrying about and caring for those in need.   

For me, seeing people care for their friends and neighbors reassures me that good people in our communities already work to help the less fortunate. Just in our small town, we have a woman who collects items for new foster children (and others) who may arrive to new homes with only the clothes on their backs; a couple who helps the homeless and nearly homeless find or keep their homes, providing emergency supplies and assistance; angel trees to provide Christmas gifts for children whose parents might not be able to afford them. 

There are organizations and businesses run by people who have taken their passion for their community and love for their neighbors, gotten to know the specific needs, and found ways to collaborate to meet them. There are friendship networks and support systems that look out for changing needs and work to meet them, efficiently and effectively providing assistance in ways government welfare programs don’t. I mean, when’s the last time the Department of Social Services baked a casserole for an overwhelmed family? 

In a society with less government, more of that work may need to be done. I firmly believe that local knowledge allows private charitable behavior to more efficiently and effectively meet the needs of the less fortunate. I hope, though, that men will join women in taking on these tasks instead of waiting for women to manage even more of the caring. 

Thanks to Andrew J. Cohen and Sean Mulholland for conversations about the above.  


[1] Not saying men don’t do these things. They do! You can see it in the surveys on volunteering. Men are just less likely to do so.  But it happens, both formally and informally. One small example: when my husband was sick recently, his friend Bill picked up our energetic dog every afternoon to exercise her. Thanks Bill! 

Censorship, Free Speech, Social Media, and The First Amendment

According to the state action doctrine, only government entities can violate the First Amendment. Twitter, Facebook, etc, are not government entities. They don’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights when they take down posts or remove their accounts. That does not mean that Twitter, FB, etc, aren’t censoring speech.

Some worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc are monopolies, violating anti-trust laws and that they thus ought to be regulated as common carriers. This strikes me as pretty obviously mistaken. Not only are they competitors, but others have sought to compete with them (MeWe, Parler, etc) and nothing rules out others trying to do so in the future. Some also worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc might act in ways meant to curry favor with the Federal government and that if that is true, since its plausible that federal regulators know this and might thus signal their desires to these firms, really Twitter, Facebook, etc are agents of the state and so they can, after all, violate individual constitutional rights. This also strikes me as pretty implausible, both legally and morally. Whatever control would be present would be pretty tenuous. If it weren’t, it seems unlikely that Twitter would have closed President Trump’s account.

When Twitter bans President Trump from its platform, it prevents him from speaking to a certain audience, limiting his speech. It does not thereby successfully prevent him from speaking to everyone; he has other avenues of communication. Of course, if the government censors someone, they also will typically have other avenues of speech. Consider the Comstock Act of 1873; it made it illegal to send certain “lascivious” material through the mail. Those wishing to share (speak about) those materials with others, could still do so—for example, by walking to others and talking to them directly. More generally, any governmental act meant to silence someone will close some avenues of communication while leaving others open. The fact that a social media company only closes some avenues of communication to (i.e, only partially silences) someone it bans from its platform is no different than what government does. If the latter is censorship, so is the former. Or so it seems to me.

If I am right, “government censorship” is a specification of “censorship,” as is “parental censorship,” “school censorship,” etc. “Social media censorship” would simply be censorship by a social media company. If this is wrong, we need another term for what the other agents just named do when they limit speech. That’s fine, of course. It’s a mere conceptual matter, one we needn’t worry too much about—what we are really interested in, I think, is whether social media companies or other private agents should seek to silence anyone. Still, if this is not censorship because only speech limitation by government is censorship, then “government censorship” is redundant—and I do not think it is.

That I think social media companies sometimes engage in what is properly called “censorship” does not mean those companies do anything wrong. Free speech is valuable—and so, I think, the first amendment leaves the US more or less absolutist in forbidding government intervention in speech. But that doesn’t mean private agents can never morally limit speech. Of course they can. Of course we can. For example, I stop my son from using certain words that are not appropriate for polite society. I censor him. There are also certain speech acts I would forbid in my classroom if I had to, but thankfully don’t—they don’t ever seem to come up; that is, my students don’t use them (in the classroom, anyway). Similarly, book burning (in some circumstances) by private individuals and book banning in private schools are likely forms of censorship. They’re both legal, even if disturbing.

Some censorship is not only permissible, but expected and probably morally good—disrespectful speech in the classroom, for example, is something we do well to make unacceptable (through non-legal, social means). Is censorship by Twitter, Facebook, etc, of President Trump and his followers good? I don’t honestly know. I am conflicted. On the one hand, I generally agree that more speech is the way to counter bad speech and that airing all views is likely to leave the bad (morally and epistemically) views with fewer believers. And (on the same hand), I worry that people are too often attracted to beliefs they are told they shouldn’t have (the “taboo effect”). Certainly, letting people discuss racist and anti-Semitic views hasn’t (yet) stopped them from spreading and letting people discuss conspiracy theories about fraudulent elections—for which there is no evidence—hasn’t stopped them from spreading. On the other hand, I don’t have any significant doubt that President Trump lies and that his followers are mistaken about a number of important factors, including the supposed fraudulence of the election, and preventing the spread of those false beliefs seems worthwhile. And, I admit, I simply love that in our society government officials face limits imposed by private entities. Corporate CEOs can tell the President of the United States that he can’t use their service; this is not something one can say in Russia or China.

Conclusion: like it or not (and I am conflicted), Twitter and Facebook do not violate any constitutional rights by censoring the President and his followers. As I said previously, this is a matter of property rights. Twitter and Facebook own their platforms just as I own my home. Just as I can forbid someone from entering my home to tell me why Nazi’s were right—or anything at all that I don’t want to hear—Twitter and Facebook can forbid people from using their platforms to say thinks Twitter and Facebook do not like. Twitter and Facebook have the right to censor those using their platforms. Whether they should or not, I cannot presently say.

Moralism, Community, and Civil Discourse

I’ve begun to think that one of the largest problems facing society is moralism, in a variety of forms. I want to try out this claim here. For the moment, take moralism to be a commitment to the view that some acts must be forbidden, socially or legally, because they are (a) judged wrong by the general populace, (b) in some way opposed to the continued survival of the general populace, or (c) simply immoral even if no one is hurt by them. I expect to return to this in future posts, but here want to discuss a possible relationship between moralism and our problems with civil discourse.

There are at least three ways to get someone else to believe or act as you. First, one can use force or coercion on the other, perhaps yelling at or bullying them. Second, one can appeal to the other’s emotions, perhaps getting them to feel bad if they don’t accept your view or do what you want. Third, one can use reason, trying to explain why what you want them to believe or do is what they actually should believe or do. All of these are ways that people “argue,” though only the last is “argument” in the philosopher’s sense. I take it as obvious that we should reject the first (as it treats persons as non-agents) and prefer the third (it alone treats persons as what they are, rational agents). Philosophers would prefer only the third be used; we sometimes find it hard to accept how much more prevalent and successful the second is. Advertising, public relations, and politics all rely on emotional appeals far more than reason. In doing so—in relying on appeals to emotions—they treat persons as agents, but not rational agents. This is better than coercion, but not as good as reason.

One sort of appeal to emotions I see a good bit of is an appeal to community. If we care about our community, we’re told, we’ll do this. If we care about each other, we’ll do that. This can be turned into a rational argument, of course: community is important, so we should do X which is necessary for community. Even then, we are rarely told why community is important or how X is necessary for it. Still less are we likely to be told how the particular community in question actually has the qualities of community that give it value. (Community can be a real value even if this particular community is not.). In most cases, the appeal is a form of the second type of moralism, where we are supposed to believe that the community requires what the appealer says—that absent our acquiescence the community will be endangered.

Generally, when one appeals to community, the goal is simply to get other people to do, believe, or live as one wants. It’s community as the appealer conceives it. If the appealer wants help with child care, the conception of community will be one where child care duties are shared, including by those who did not wish to have children. If the appealer believes women are or should be subordinate to men, the sought after community will be chauvinist. If the appealer is egalitarian, the sought after community will be egalitarian. If the appealer thinks people currently in the community are of more value than those elsewhere, the sought after community will be anti-immigrant. If the appealer thinks allopathic medicine, western education in STEM fields, or the like are necessary for decent or good lives, the sought after community will be one where those things are provided or even required of all.

Here’s the thing: if one is willing to appeal to emotions in this way to convince others to do, believe, or live as one wants, one does not value the other as a person. While appealing to emotions may be better than coercion, it still treats the other as less than oneself. It is manipulation with an assumption that the other is no more than a being to be manipulated to get what one wants. It excludes belief that the other should be reasoned with, that their reason matters. It thereby excludes, in the instance, belief in rational discourse with the other.

I expect to be discussing moralism further in future posts, but here hope only to have shown how continued reliance on moralism of one form prevents use of rational dialogue. This should be obvious: if we are genuinely committed to rational dialogue with our fellow citizens, we don’t coerce them and we don’t try to suade them with appeals to emotions, even if designed to protect our community as we see it.

Why Do Horrid People Have Rights? (Part II)

In Part I, I showed that justifying liberty rights on the grounds that we need them to pursue eudaimonia fails to show why people who are incapable of pursuing eudaimonia have liberty rights. Here I will ask if a less ambitious justification can include the excluded people.

According to Loren Lomasky, most of us are project-pursuers (CE*), setting long-term goals for ourselves and creating personal value. Personal projects give our lives structure and meaning. Indeed, they are part of our very identity (CE*). Lomasky argues that it is this that endows each project-pursuer with a separate, irreplaceable value, and grounds rights.

However, according to Lomasky, it is not only project-pursuers who have rights. Some non-project-pursuers have rights by virtue of their membership in the moral community of project-pursuers who have “the rational motivation … to recognize and respond to” non-project-pursuers (199). This is why those born so mentally incapacitated that they will never pursue projects, as well as those who can no longer pursue projects on account of dementia, have rights. They are proper objects for “the respect of others” (199). All these individuals ‘piggyback’ on the status of project-pursuers as rights holders. If the vast majority of human beings were not project-pursuers, no one would have rights.

So there are two bases for ascribing rights to people: project-pursuit and membership in a community of project-pursuers. This argument, if sound, justifies the ascription of rights to far more people than the eudaimonistic argument. In addition to those who will never pursue projects and those who can no longer do so because of dementia, it also allows hopeless addicts to count as rights-bearers. But it leaves the fate of the psychopath and the vicious man in limbo. Full-fledged psychopaths are not and never were project-pursuers because they don’t have long-term goals. One of the most enduring traits of a full-fledged psychopath is his impulsivity – giving in to the desire of the moment. Hervey Cleckley observes that the “[full] psychopath shows a striking inability to follow any sort of life plan consistently, whether it be … good or evil. He does not maintain an effort toward any far goal at all. … On the contrary, he seems to go out of his way to make a failure of life…. At the behest of trivial impulses he repeatedly addresses himself directly to folly” (CE*) (364). 

Is the psychopath a member of the moral community of project-pursuers? If being a member simply means ‘living in society’, then of course he’s a member of the moral community. But if it means that he is recognizable as “a proper object for the respect of others” (199, my italics), then he is not, since he inflicts harm and psychological pain on family members and strangers without guilt.[1] It seems that neither of Lomasky’s arguments can justify ascribing rights to a psychopath. Yet we do think that he has a right to liberty unless or until he violates someone’s rights.

The vicious man described in Part I, whose supreme joy lies in seeing others suffer, but who is smart enough not to violate others’ rights, poses a different problem. He does have a project: the project of making others suffer. This project might give meaning and structure to the vicious man’s life, but its meaning for others is completely negative. Hence he, too, is not a proper object of our respect. The same applies to other varieties of anti-social personalities. Yet we do think that they ought to live free so long as they don’t violate anyone’s rights.

We are either wrong to believe that full-fledged psychopaths (who, by their nature, cannot become project-pursuers), vicious people (whose projects are intentionally inimical to other people’s projects), and anti-social personalities have liberty rights, or we have to look for a different justification.

Let’s start by asking why we might not want such people to have liberty rights. The main reason is that they inflict misery on others without rhyme or reason. But we don’t have a right against misery, because such a right would conflict with many of our liberty rights. It is morally wrong to be a treacherous lover, an unjust boss, a hateful neighbor, a domineering parent, or a nasty teen, but we all have a right to be thus. A right against misery would also conflict with our liberty to behave in perfectly decent ways, because even decent behavior can be a source of misery for some. For example, a young woman who marries someone with the ‘wrong’ politics, religion, or skin color can make her parents miserable. So if the parents had a right to be protected from misery, it would follow that their daughter did not have a right to marry the person she wants. Again, a son’s decision to become a businessman, instead of a musician like his father, might make his father miserable. But the father’s right against misery would mean that the son does not have a right to become a businessman. As these examples show, a right against misery can be self-defeating, since A’s lack of liberty to inflict misery on B is often B’s liberty to inflict misery on A. The idea that we have a right to be protected from misery opens wide the door to government overreach and a violation of many of our rights. It invites the government to become a predator instead of a protector. If we are made miserable by others’ behavior, we need to rely on friends, relatives, or psychologists for support. So psychopaths and other trouble-makers can’t be denied their liberties on the grounds that they make us miserable.

But what is it about them that grounds their rights? The only answer is that, for all their badness, many psychopaths, vicious people, and anti-social personalities have the ability to not violate our rights, even if only for purely instrumental reasons. It is this ability that gives them a right to liberty. This answer of course applies to everyone with this ability – the virtuous as well as the vicious, and everyone in between. But in the case of everyone other than the vicious, the anti-social, and the psychopathic, we also have other reasons to regard them as rights-bearers, reasons that show the importance of rights in human life.


[1] It’s possible that what Lomasky means by ‘respect’ is simply ‘respect for us as rights holders. But that makes his argument circular: we have rights because we are proper objects of respect, and we are proper objects of respect because we have rights.

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Schools, Teachers, Parents, and a Bad Assumption

In my last post, I discussed the problems surrounding opening schools and, importantly, how we discuss them. In this post, I want to raise an issue about schooling more generally that is rarely discussed at all. I want to show how our current system encourages a false belief about parents and teachers that has pernicious results.

I begin by noting that my wife is a public school teacher and, given how Georgia is handling the pandemic, I have a clear preference for her to not teach in her school building. I also have a school age child who was, until a month ago, in a private school. The administration of that school is, I think, approaching the situation far better than most, but we still worry about both health and pedagogical risks. Thinking about both returning (or not) to school has me once again wondering about fundamental social problems—especially regarding schooling and parenting.

I think most of us are pretty bad at parenting. (Philip Larkin understood this well, but I should be clear that I think there are a huge variety of ways that we are bad at it—some are overbearing and some are entirely too loose, for opposing examples.) Worries about increased child abuse with school closures are therefore not at all surprising. On the other hand, I also think most K-12 schools are pretty bad at educating. Having served on committees for two charter schools and volunteered and watched at my son’s schools, I’ve been amazed at how unwilling school administrators can be to make use of evidence about best educational practices. (This is sometimes true even when they clearly know the evidence—in such cases, they tend to point out that they are constrained by budgets, politics, etc.) Schools don’t, in my view, offer enough music or art or time to relax, run, and breath outside. They also tend to start too early in the morning, foolishly insist children sit still and at desks, force students to maintain logs of reading, and even penalize students that read unassigned books at the wrong time. Worries about children being stifled and losing their innate curiosity because of school rules are therefore also not surprising.

Many parents are aware of problems with their children’s’ schools. Some even work to correct them. Most, though, seem to “mind their own business”—as if the education of their children were not their business. Indeed, many parents seem to think that because schools are provided and mandatory, they are themselves absolved of the responsibility for educating their children. (As schools feed and medically nurse children, parents may feel absolved of even more responsibility.) Even the best of parents tend to assume their children are being well taken care of at school. Unfortunately, too many parents assume their children are the school’s responsibility during the day. Interestingly, the pandemic helped some see that their school was not working for them. (See this interesting NY Times piece.)

I do not think any of this is surprising or unexplainable. We live in a society wherein government has encouraged parental abdication of educational responsibilities. Parents often rightly feel that they cannot opt out of government run schools. Where they can, they usually are constrained to choose either the local government school or a nearby private school. Only in some locales is there a simple and straightforward process through which you can legally educate your own child. (The option is, I think, available everywhere in the US, but with more or less red tape involved.) Encouraged is a belief that I suspect drives the problems that beset schools: that parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct and must be kept separate.

Our system of K-12 education relies on the idea that parents are not teachers. Indeed, some homeschooling parents have been condemned for thinking they could teach their own children. Parents, on this view, are supposed to feed, clothe, love, and maybe socialize children. Schools, on the other hand, provide teachers to educate children, too often including moral education (and might also provide food and healthcare for the children). And schools—or the administrators thereof (or, worse, politicians)—decide where a child will learn and how. A parent that tries to send her child to a better public school than the one closest may face jail time—because the school system decides, not the parent. (See this and this.) Parents, after all, don’t know about education.

Two problems emerge when people believe parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct. The first, I’ve discussed above: schools operate with a variety of problems and parents don’t work to change them or do so but face insurmountable difficulties in the attempt. When they don’t try, it is likely at least partly because thinking that parents aren’t teachers makes parents think teachers have an authority they do not. And, of course, they assume teachers run schools. The second problem is a corollary: because parents are led to believe schools and teachers have an authority they do not themselves possess, parents don’t think they need be active participants in their children’s education. In short, parents take less responsibility for raising their children, leaving more and more to schools. What society gets, too often, is school graduates who learn to do as they are told, conforming to societal requirements. If parents were more active, we’d get more diversity in how children are educated, resulting in many benefits (though admittedly also costs in terms of equity). I think we are seeing some of this already and hope to see more. We’d get more people contributing in more and more varied ways to society, creating more and more varied benefits for all.

In short, the all too common belief that parents and teachers are necessarily distinct lets parents off the hook for too much and grants schools too much leeway. Challenging that belief would encourage parents to challenge their children’s schools, thereby either improving the schools or having the schools lose students to other alternatives.

The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate many things. Hopefully, one positive outcome will be a healthier view of the relationship between parenting and education–one that emphasizes parental responsibility and acknowledges the limits of career educators (especially those in what might be called “educational factories”). One might even hope that this would help make parents better at parenting.

(Conversations with my wife and with Lauren Hall, JP Messina, and Kevin Currie-Knight inspired, and helped me with, this post.)

The Quadruple Threat to America Today

America faces a quadruple threat. The four threats are related in various ways, too often mutually supporting. I am not including COVID-19, though it could easily be considered a 5th threat. My reasons for doing this are: (1) it’s a threat everywhere, in no way distinctive of American life; indeed, it would be best considered a global natural disaster; (2) it is related to the threats I do discuss; indeed, like all natural disasters, it’s impact is determined by our responses—and the other threats make bad responses more likely. I offer these for consideration as I think they must all be addressed if liberalism is to survive.

The first threat is straightforward. We might call it xenophobia or extreme in-group bias. It manifests in multiple ways, especially racism, sexism, anti-immigrant biases, and anti-semitism. This may seem to be largely confined to those on the so-called “right,” but it applies to many on the left as well. On the left, one need only think of Bernie Sanders’ anti-immigrant views or Joe Biden’s recent pro-American economic policy; on the right one need only think of talk of the “Wuhan flu” or “China flu” instead of “COVID-19”—both play on the insider/outsider distinction to blame someone else for our problems (or at least prevent outsiders from becoming insiders). Maliciously shifting the blame provides cover for those who seek to refuse to take action to limit the harm. Taking responsibility (not necessarily blame) means working to fix the problem. Many of our governments—and many individuals—refuse to do so. This, of course, is at least part of why the number of COVID cases and deaths in the US is on the rise. Like all natural disasters, how we react to it determines the overall impact it has. Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement is currently the most straightforward evidence of in-group bias, in the form of racism, as protestors correctly point out how institutional racism, especially (but not only) by way of police actions, are extremely unjust and, indeed, a matter of life and death for many. This seems to be a concern primarily of “the left,” but with leading support from libertarians (defying the standard left/right dichotomy). For those interested in that, see Radley Balko’s and Chris Coyne and Abigail Hall’s books (CE*).

The second threat is the economy, as we fail to institute a reasonable response to the COVID-19 pandemic and as we face the repercussions of widespread use of collateralized loan obligations (see this Barron’s piece and this piece in The Atlantic), much as the 2008 recession was at least partly caused by widespread use of collateralized debt obligations. Regarding the latter, it is unfortunate in the extreme that the federal government failed to learn any lessons from the collapse of the housing market bubble or its past support for big banking and the latter’s issuing of bad debt (itself encouraged as the big banks correctly realized that even if the debts really went south, they would be bailed out by taxpayers—because in the US the one thing we like to socialize is big business’s losses). Unfortunately, we may see the same thing repeat. Indeed, it may be worse since there is more invested in CLOs than there was in CDOs and the CLOs largely include commercial debt—and the pandemic is hard on many commercial enterprises. Regarding the government response to the pandemic, we can only note what has been often noted—widespread, enforced, and complete shut-downs of multiple markets may or may not help reduce spread of the disease, but would only do so at the obvious cost of making it more difficult—and more expensive—for people to get necessities. While middle and upper class professionals are often able to work from home with no or little loss in pay, many—especially those in the restaurant and entertainment businesses—cannot. At the end of the day, shutting everything down to save lives is foolhardy as it will cost lives. If markets are all closed, we won’t have food and other necessities. Those who live paycheck to paycheck (and many more) won’t be able to pay rent, etc.

The third threat is authoritarianism, partially with a populist demagogue. We now have a president who is likely more of a demagogue than any president since Andrew Jackson. Of course, he was enabled by changes to the office and the workings of the federal government over the last several decades. The expansion of presidential powers under the past several presidents—Republican and Democrat alike—enabled what we have now. The populism is perhaps as dangerous as anything else—promising voters bread and circuses is always worrisome. Those voters are often not well informed about how government works or about science. Now, of course, we see both the populism and the authoritarianism emerging from the debased Republican Party. The populism is clear in the MAGA crowd’s following their leader in insisting on not wearing masks. The authoritarianism is perhaps worse, as witnessed in federal law enforcement agencies frightening behavior in Portland—with the threat that such behavior will go national. The use of ICE and The Border Patrol Tactical Unit deep within the US Border started months ago (see this in the NYTimes) but seems to be picking up steam—ostensibly because the federal government is so worried about graffiti on federal buildings that they are unwilling to leave such crimes to local authorities. (See Jake’s great piece, which also indicates why this is also about populism.) In reality, of course, this may be merely a piece of political theater, aimed at distracting voters and rallying the president’s base. As already indicated, though, this is not an issue for the current Republican party alone. Presidents Clinton and Obama also expanded their powers while in office. And even now, we see scary authoritarianism from the left, when local authorities claim to have knowledge about what is necessary to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and claim that such knowledge justifies them forcing people to live under house arrest (see this piece about a couple in Kentucky) for refusing to sign a paper saying they would not self-quarantine (whether or not they would self-quarantine). Neither left nor right is blameless and neither seems to recognize that their actions are as scary (at least to their opponents) as those of the other side are (at least to them). Those on “the right” seem to think the Feds behavior in Portland is worthwhile because local authorities aren’t stopping looters. They seem to forget the value of federalism and the freedom of individuals that helps ensure (though they remember it clearly when it serves their interests). Those on “the left” seem to think the Kentucky authorities are doing the work needed given public health concerns. They seem to work with a reified sense of “the public” and forget the freedom of individuals that threatens (though they remember it clearly enough when it serves their interests).

The fourth threat is related to my last post. Its a dangerous lack of commitment to there being anything that is objectively true and to seeking such. Its not just our president that seems to lack any commitment to truth. Our culture is riddled with people who claim their beliefs form “their truth” which may be different from “your truth” or “my truth” but that must be treated as if of equal value. Never mind that there really are experts out there in all sorts of areas. Some believe their views of morality are as valuable as those of academics who spend their lives working out intricate details of moral theories and defending those theories against all manner of objection—though they themselves never subject their own views to criticism. (Why should they, when their view is “true to them,” whatever that means?) No wonder people now consider their views about disease transmission (and curing) as valuable as the CDC’s or Dr. Fauci’s. Or who consider their view of other countries as valuable as people who have actually travelled to or lived in those countries. Or who think their views of politics and economics as valuable as academic political scientists and economists who have been studying these things for decades? Admittedly, insisting that there is objective truth might sometimes sound dogmatic to those who feel insulted when faced with any intellectual opposition—as if insisting that a proposition is true entails rejecting any objection or evidence to the contrary, which it decidedly does not. Giving any belief its due can be considerably difficult. As Schumpter said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” We must remain open to the possibility that we are mistaken even when we are convinced we are not—that is what genuine commitment to truth and truth seeking entails.

I’ll end by making some of the connections between the threats explicit: 

-Its easier to favor economic policies that favor the rich (2) when one thinks everyone else is “other” (1). Its easier to favor authoritarian actions (3) when one believes they are only used against people vary unlike oneself (1). Its easier to deny there is any objective truth (4) when one is constantly told those unlike oneself have different values and beliefs (1)

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one mistakenly (4) think they threaten one’s own livelihood and that of those one cares about (2). It is likely easier to endorse authoritarian policies (3) if one thinks they are necessary to maintain economic stability or growth (2). (Less related to this discussion: it is apparently easier to deny there is any form of objectivity (4) if one believes that the only think that matters is subjective preferences (2).)

-Its easier to distrust or hate others (1) or to favor an economic policy (2) when blinded by an authoritarian repeatedly making false statements about them and grandstanding (3 & 4). Its easier, in general, to doubt there is any objectivity (4) when both that same authoritarian (3) and many others—including, if we are honest, many leftist college professors—encourage those doubts.

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one refuses to learn about them (4). Its easier to favor an economic policy (2) when one refuses to consider objections to it (4). Its easier to favor forcing people to live as one thinks they should (3) without doing the hard work of listening to them (4).

I hope its clear we need a response to these threats. Liberalism—and the great American experiment—depend on it.

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Investigating Mr. Newton’s Residency Status is Immoral

SCOTUS recently sided with POTUS about the rights of certain immigrants who face deportation. The basic point by the court was that “neither the right of habeas corpus nor the right to due process of law requires a hearing before a judge for those turned down in their initial asylum screenings.” (See this NPR story.) I won’t comment here about the legal reasoning; this is a comment about the morality of deportations—or really, the morality of the initial acts that lead to deportations, especially those by I.C.E.

My thinking here was not spurred by the SCOTUS decision but by a line in The Man Who Fell to Earth (CE*) by Walter Tevis. For those who have neither read the book nor seen the movie (CE*), this is a story about a extraterrestrial alien who came to earth and did a fantastic amount of good for humankind—just as immigration is generally good for all humankind. (See this Economist Article, this Michael Clemens JEP article, and Bryan Caplan’s book (CE*).) The good he did was in the service of working toward helping those from his own planet, but was done peacefully—again, the norm for immigrants, who typically work for their own good or that of family in their home country, but do so peacefully. Upon his arrest, the alien—Mr. Newton—asks about the constitutional right to legal counsel. The response is startling: “you don’t have any constitutional rights. As I said we believe you are not an American citizen.” Constitutional rights only apply to citizens, we are told. Indeed, Tevis suggests, constitutional rights only apply to those whose citizenship isn’t doubted by any government officials. If a government official believes you are not a citizen, you have no constitutional rights.

I find this appalling on its own because I value morality for its own sake and only value a constitution—any constitution—if it is in accord with morality. I’d like to think all classical liberals would agree. Unfortunately, I know people with whom I am otherwise in large agreement, who do not agree. I know otherwise solid libertarians who disagree. (That shocked me when I first realized it.) Nonetheless, human persons all have value. They ought all be treated with equal respect. If a constitution suggests it’s ok to treat human persons disrespectfully, it is wrong.

My primary assertion here is simply that it is disrespectful to stop someone to accuse them of committing a crime, or even to question them about a crime, without very good reason. The question, then, is when do we have such reason? I think there are at least two requirements: First, it must be a serious crime, by which I mean someone must have been seriously harmed or be credibly threatened with serious harm. Second, the evidence must itself be both credible and persuasive to the average rational person. Absent either of these conditions being satisfied, no government official should interfere with any individual. (I mean for this to be a beefed up form of probable cause requirement.)

Turning back to deportation actions, consider that every U.S. citizen has rights and is presumed “innocent until proven guilty.” I would think that this entails that we assume those around us are innocent of the crime of entering the country illegally—or, at least assumed innocent absent the satisfaction of the two conditions indicated in the previous paragraph. But note being a resident in the US illegally will never satisfy the first of those conditions—coming into the country illegally does not on its own credibly threaten or cause any individual serious harm. (See Van der Vossen and Brennan book (CE*) and Lomasky and Teson book (CE*).) Hence, we (and the government) should assume those around us are citizens unless proven not to be. (If we do not, we assume some of our neighbors are guilty of a minor, i.e., non-serious, crime—but, again, we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty and, more to my point, it would be a failure of respect to hassle someone about possibly having committed such a minor crime.) So we should assume that all present in the country are citizens. If we assume that, though, we don’t investigate their citizenship—we assume they are citizens. Mr. Newton shouldn’t have been investigated. He should have been thanked for all that he gave everyone else in the country. So too, we should not have I.C.E. investigate or seek out non-citizens. They should be assumed to be citizens and, indeed, thanked for what they provide the rest of us. Hence, we should not be looking to find anyone here illegally and so should not consider departing anyone.

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