Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Year in Review: Best Posts of 2013

As part of my annual retrospective, here is a list of what I think were the best posts of 2013. I have tried to include at least one post from each month, and to give some sense of the diversity of topics I have covered in the past year.

  • 1. The Lucretian Symmetry Argument (Part One, Part Two) - These two posts date from January and deal with Lucretius' famous symmetry argument against the badness of death. If the period of non-existence prior to our births was nothing to us, why should the period of non-existence after our deaths be of concern? I look at a recent exchange of views about this argument.

  • 2. The Golem Genie and Unfriendly AI (Part One, Part Two) - Straddling the end of January and the start of February was this two-part series about the risks of unfriendly AI. The series dealt with an article by Luke Muehlhauser and Louis Helm from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI). 

  • 3. The Logic of Indirect Speech (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) - Steven Pinker, along with his co-authors Martin Nowak and James Lee, has argued that people use ambiguous or indirect forms of speech for strategic reasons, i.e. to help them maintain plausible deniability across a range of social relationships. I look at their arguments in this three-part series.

  • 4. Revisiting Nagel on the Absurdity of Life (Part One, Part Two) - Way back in the early 1970s, Thomas Nagel wrote a much publicised article about the absurdity of life. Way back in April, I thought it might be worth revisiting this article and analysing its core arguments. For those who care, the resulting pair of posts were the most popular ones to feature on this blog in the past year, generating over 4000 individual hits each (they weren't, however, my most-viewed posts of the year, more on that later).

  • 5. How should we respond to moral risk (Part One, Part Two) - There is typically a reasonable degree of uncertainty regarding the truth of philosophical claims, particularly moral claims. How should that uncertainty affect our moral decision-making? These two posts try to answer that question, with the help of Dan Moller's article on the topic of abortion and moral risk.

  • 6. Are we cosmically insignificant? - Building on my year-long (life-long?) obsession with the meaning of life, death, the universe and everything, in June I took a look at Guy Kahane's important (if confusing) new paper on the topic of cosmic significance. In the process, I tried to clarify Kahane's core argument.

  • 7. Hedrick on Hilbert's Hotel and the Actual Infinite (Part One, Part Two) - William Lane Craig has long argued that the existence of an actually infinite series of events is absurd. The argument is a key part of his overall defence of theism. But is it any good? Landon Hedrick has recently critiqued one of Craig's main supports for the absurdity of the actual infinite -- the Hilbert's Hotel Argument. In this pair of posts, I analyse Hedrick's critique.

  • 8. Disambiguating Evil (Series) - In August, I was distracted by the problem of evil. To be more precise, I was distracted by some recent attempts to render the problem of evil more compelling by distinguishing between different kinds of evil. I looked at three papers in total. The first from Moti Mizrahi which looked at the problem of natural inequality; the second from Ted Poston outlined the problem of social evil; and the third, from Luke Maring, presented the problem of divine authority and evil.

  • 9. The Ethics of Prostitution (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) - Should prostitution be a criminal offence? Should it be decriminalised, in whole or in part? Governments have long grappled with these questions. In this series of posts, I looked at Ole Martin Moen's claim that prostitution was not harmful.

  • 10. The Ethics of Robot Sex - In the future, we may all be having sex with sophisticated human-like robots. Or so at least argues David Levy. In this post, I take a look at his argument and wonder whether sex with robots raises any serious ethical issues. This was my most-viewed post (note: I don't say 'read', since I suspect most people don't read what they click through to) of the year, thanks in no small part to its republication on the IEET blog.

  • 11. Are mental illnesses real? (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) - I didn't do much blogging in November, so when it came to including something from that month this three-part series on the philosophy of mental illness was pretty much my only option. Still, I think it deals with many of the key contributions to the debate, from Thomas Szasz's infamous critique of mental illness, up to Andrew Wakefield's attempt to integrate an account of mental illness with modern evolutionary biology.

  • 12. Libertarianism and the Basic Income (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) - I got back into the swing of things, blogging-wise, in the past month, and my main preoccupation was with political philosophy and the case for the basic income. This three-part series on the connection between libertarianism and the basic income gives a good overview of the topic, and might provide many people with a useful window into the debate.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Academic Papers 2013

This past year has been a busy one. As is common on most blogs, I thought that as I approached the New Year it might be time to do a bit of a retrospective. So anyway, here is a list of the academic articles I have had published or accepted for publication in the past year. In each case, I provide a short synopsis and links to the official versions, as well as preprints on and philpapers.

  • On the Need for Epistemic Enhancement: Democratic Legitimacy and the Enhancement Project (2013) 5(1) Law Innovation and Technology 85 - 112 - This paper defends the use of enhancement technologies for participants in the legal trial using ideas from social epistemology and democratic legitimacy. (Official; Academia; Philpapers)
  • Kramer's Purgative Rationale for Capital Punishment: A Critique (2013) Criminal Law and Philosophy DOI 10.1007/s11572-013-9251-8 - This paper critiques Matthew Kramer's attempt to defend the death penalty using something he calls the purgative rationale. I argue that the purgative rationale fails to satisfy the test that Kramer himself sets for any successful defence of the death penalty. (Official; Academia; Philpapers)
  • Skeptical Theism and Divine Permission: A Reply to Anderson (2013) International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion DOI: 10.1007/s11153-013-9429-y - This paper takes issue with David Anderson's attempt to defend skeptical theism from the moral skepticism challenge. I also take the opportunity to clarify some of the key concepts and ideas in this debate. (Official; Academia; Philpapers)
  • Necessary Moral Truths and Theistic Metaethics (2013) SOPHIA DOI 10.1007/s11841-013-0390-0 - This paper argues that the fact -- if it is a fact -- that some moral truths are necessary undermines the core commitment of theistic metaethics (viz. every moral fact should be explained by God). I defend this argument from attacks by William Lane Craig and Mark Murphy. (Official; Academia; Philpapers)
  • The Vice of In-Principlism and the Harmfulness of Love (2013) 13(11) American Journal of Bioethics 19-21 - This was a short commentary on Earp et al's target article about the ethics of anti-love biotechnology. I argued that their proposed framework for determining the permissible use of such technologies commits the vice of in-principlism and misstates the role of harm. (Official; Academia; Philpapers)
  • Responsible Innovation in Social Epistemic Systems: The P300 Memory Detection Test and the Legal Trial in Van den Hoven et al (Eds) Responsible Innovation Volume II: Concepts, Approaches, Applications (Dordrecht: Springer, forthcoming - 2014) - This paper proposes a novel framework for determining whether or not something like the P300 memory detection test should be used in legal trials. (Academia; Philpapers)
  • Hyperagency and the Good Life - Does Extreme Enhancement Threaten Meaning? (2013) Neuroethics DOI: 10.1007/s12152-013-9200-1 - This paper looks at hyperagency objections to the use of enhancement technologies and argues that they are unpersuasive. It also argues that far from undermining the conditions necessary for a good and meaningful life, enhancement technologies may actually allow us to live more fulfilling and more meaningful lives. (Official; Academia; Philpapers)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Freedom: Non-Frustration, Non-Interference and Non-Domination (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second and final part in my series on the different conceptions of political freedom. The series is working from Philip Pettit's article "The Instability of Freedom as Noninterference: The Case of Isaiah Berlin". In this article, Pettit analyses three different conceptions of political freedom -- freedom as non-frustration; freedom as non-interference; and freedom as non-domination -- and makes an argument for the non-domination conception.

In part one, we looked at the differences between freedom as non-frustration and freedom as non-interference. The former conception, which was associated with the work of Thomas Hobbes, held that we are free just so long as we are not frustrated in doing what we want to do. The latter conception, which was associated with the work of Isaiah Berlin, held that we are free just so long as our choices are unimpeded across a range of possible worlds.

At the end of part one, we introduced the adaptation argument. This argument stated that the non-frustration conception of political freedom was unsustainable. It did so on the grounds that the non-frustration conception led to the absurd conclusion that you can make yourself free by adapting your preferences to match those of anyone who might be dispositionally inclined to interfere with your choices. Like, for example, the prisoner who adapts his/her preferences to meet those of the prison warden.

The adaptation argument hinted that the non-interference conception of freedom was preferable to the non-frustration conception. Or so it seemed when we left off. But is it really the case that the non-interference conception captures what is needed in an account of political freedom? Pettit thinks not. Just as the non-frustration account had to yield to the superiority of the non-interference account, so too must the non-interference account yield to the superiority of the non-domination account.

This post will cover Pettit's argument for this conclusion. It does so in two sections. The first covers the ingratiation argument, which maintains that the non-interference conception leads to an absurdity. The second explains exactly what is entailed by the non-domination conception, and why it is an appealing basis for a doctrine of political freedom.

1. The Ingratiation Argument
The ingratiation argument holds that the non-interference conception of freedom is absurd because it leads to the conclusion that a person is free if he/she ingratiates themselves with anyone who is dispositionally inclined to interfere with his or her choices. As with the adaptation argument before it, Pettit gives the ingratiation argument a six-step, semi-formal construction.

Here it is (numbering continues from part one):

  • (7) Suppose with Berlin that you enjoy freedom in a choice between A and B just in case both options are open; you avoid interference in each option, not just interference in the option preferred.
  • (8) By supposition, you do not enjoy freedom of choice in that case where I have a power of interference and, being ill willed, am disposed to interfere with one or the other option.
  • (9) But, by supposition, you would enjoy freedom of choice in that case if I were disposed, notwithstanding my power, to interfere with neither.
  • (10) If you know the situation, then, it appears that you can make yourself free, without reducing my power of interference, just by ingratiating yourself with me and getting me to let you have your way.
  • (11) But this is absurd. You cannot make yourself free just by accommodating yourself to my power of interference.
  • (12) Thus, the original supposition that noninterference is enough for freedom must be false.

The logic of this argument is pretty straightforward, but the conclusion is less compelling for me than was the case with the conclusion the adaptation argument. The problem, for me at any rate, is that the alleged absurdity doesn't grab me by the intuitive lapels in quite the same way as the absurdity in the previous argument. So perhaps some examples are needed to illustrate the problem.

Fortunately, such examples come readily to hand. One that Pettit specifically mentions in the article is the description of women who ingratiate themselves with their husbands from Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Legally, culturally and socially, these women were deemed to be the property of their husbands, and could only act with his permission. But, of course, the husband may have been relatively benevolent and the woman could have ingratiated herself with him so that he was never inclined to interfere with her decisions. Such a woman would achieve the ideal of freedom as non-interference, but would she really be free? Pettit thinks not, and this is why the non-interference account is absurd.

This conclusion must be tempered by one observation. Ingratiation can increase freedom in certain contexts viz. when it is used to increase the number of options available to someone. Pettit again gives the example (discussed in part one) of the person who ingratiates themselves with their friend so as to make themselves an acceptable hiking partner at the weekend. This increases the number of options available to the person, but does not imply any lack of freedom.

But why not? Ostensibly, what is going on here is similar to what was going on in the case of Wollstonecraft's charming wife who ingratiated herself with her husband: both agents are using their charms to increase the number of options available to them. Why does one use of ingratiation speak to a lack of freedom when the other does not?

2. Freedom as Non-Domination
The answer lies in the non-domination conception of freedom, the one that Pettit himself endorses. Pettit uses this conception to diagnose the flaws at the heart of the non-interference conception. The problem for the woman who must ingratiate herself with her husband is that she must do this in order to increase her options: social institutions are set up in such a way that she always subjected to the will of her husband and cannot act without his good graces. The same is not true of the person who ingratiates themselves with their friend: they are not institutionally and socially restricted in the same manner.

The non-domination conception of freedom captures the distinction between the two cases. According to this conception of freedom, one is free only if one is not subject to the dominating will of another, i.e. only if one is free to act without the permission of another. This is what is happening in the case of Wollstonecraft's charming wife. She is only allowed to act with the permission of her husband. She is subject to his dominating control, even if he is not inclined to exercise it. This is the essential ingredient in the political account of freedom that is passed over by Berlin's non-interference account.

Pettit says that the non-dominating conception of freedom can be illustrated using the same door analogy that Berlin used to illustrate the non-interference conception. As you'll recall from part one, Berlin argued that choices could be analogised to doors that we try to push open. The non-interference conception of freedom requires simply that the doors yield to us across a number of different possible worlds. The non-domination conception requires something more. It requires both that the doors yield to us across a number of possible worlds and, also, that there is no doorkeeper whose good graces you must rely upon whenever you wish to pass through.

All of which suggests that the non-domination conception of freedom is quite demanding. If it is right, then people can be dominated even if their dominators never interfere with their decisions; and people can be dominators, even if they never exercise their powers of domination. Identifying and removing all the possible sources of domination will, consequently, be an arduous process.

3. Conclusion
That brings us to the end of this series. To briefly summarise, we have looked at three different conceptions of political freedom: (i) freedom as non-frustration; (ii) freedom as non-interference; and (iii) freedom as non-domination. The first of these, which we associated with the work of Thomas Hobbes, led to the absurd conclusion that a person could be free if they simply adapted their preferences to match those of anyone who was dispositionally inclined to interfere with their choices. The second, which we associated with the work of Isaiah Berlin, led to the absurd conclusion that a person could be free if they simply ingratiated themselves with anyone who was dispositionally inclined to interfere with their choices. That cleared the path for the third conception -- that of non-domination -- which avoids these absurdities and makes for a more demanding political theory of freedom.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Freedom: Non-Frustration, Non-interference or Non-domination? (Part One)

Freedom is an important ideal in liberal political theory, but what exactly does it entail? What do we have to do in order achieve the ideal of political freedom? How will we know if we have achieved it? The first step to answering these questions will be to provide some concrete conception of what it means to be free.

In his article, "The Instability of Freedom as Noninterference: The Case of Isaiah Berlin", Philip Pettit reviews three different conceptions of freedom that have featured in the literature: (i) freedom as non-frustration; (ii) freedom as non-interference; and (iii) freedom as non-domination. Ostensibly, the article is an analysis of Isaiah Berlin's account of negative freedom (which Pettit says falls into the non-interference category), but it is also a defence of the non-domination conception. This is not surprising given Pettit’s status as the preeminent defender of freedom as non-domination in the modern era.

The argument Pettit develops in favour of non-domination over the course of the article is interesting. It looks first at the Hobbesian conception of freedom (non-frustration), and argues that it is vulnerable to a reductio-style objection. It then looks at the Berlinian conception of freedom (non-interference), and argues that it too is vulnerable to a reductio-style objection. This clears the way for the Pettitian conception of freedom (non-domination), which is the only conception that is invulnerable to these reductios. Over the next two posts, I want to outline Pettit's argument in some detail. This will be useful for anyone with an interest in political philosophy, particularly in its liberal incarnations.

In the remainder of this post, I will do two things. First, I will explain the difference between the Hobbesian and Berlinian conceptions of freedom. Second, I will introduce the adaptation argument against the Hobbesian conception.

1. Freedom as Non-Frustration vs. Freedom as Non-Interference
Generally speaking, all theories of freedom share the belief that external constraints are impediments to liberty. If I wish to drink a glass of orange juice, but you constantly push the glass out of my way, you are limiting my freedom. Likewise, if I wish to drink a glass of orange juice, but there are no oranges (juiced or otherwise) in my vicinity, my freedom is being limited.

Not all external constraints are of equal importance when it comes to political theory. Indeed, the general view is that natural constraints (e.g. the absence of oranges) are less significant in the political sphere than constraints originating from the will of others (e.g. you pushing the glass out of my reach). If possible, we should do all we can to remove these kinds of constraint: no one should be impeded by the will of another, unless, perhaps, it is necessary for some greater good. Despite the general consensus on this matter, there are still divergences of opinion about what is required to eliminate these constraints.

The Hobbesian conception of freedom suggests that what is required is non-frustration of the will. This conception originates in a quote from Hobbes's most famous work Leviathan:

[A] freeman is he that, in those things by which his strength and wit is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has will to. 
(Hobbes, Leviathan, chap 21.2)

In other words, you are free if you are not frustrated in doing the things that you want to do. To state this more definitively:

Freedom as Non-Frustration: A person is free so long as he/she is not hindered in doing the things that he or she wants to do (i.e. so long as his/her will is not frustrated)

This conception of freedom has several interesting implications, one of which is particularly important in the present context. It implies that external constraints are only relevant to freedom when they affect the decisions you actually make, not the ones you might have made, in a different possible world.

That this is a problem was recognised even in Hobbes's day (I don't really know why I say "even"; it's not as though people living in the 17th century were incapable of philosophical insight). Bishop Bramhall, one of Hobbes's chief critics, presented a counterexample to this aspect of Hobbes's theory that resonates today. He asked us to imagine a man who thought about playing tennis with his friend but then decided against it. Suppose, however, unbeknownst to the man, he could not have played tennis with his friend anyway, because someone had stolen his racquet or locked the gate to the tennis court. The question then arises: is this man free?

This example bears many similarities with the so-called Frankfurt cases that permeate the free will and moral responsibility debate today. And, indeed, the analysis proposed by Bramhall is similar to that of the contemporary critics of Frankfurt. Bramhall argues that although the man in the example is not frustrated in the expression of his will -- he decided not to play tennis after all -- he still not truly free. He has had an option removed that he might have otherwise taken.

The Berlinian conception of freedom of non-interference takes up the torch from Bramhall's critique. It holds that political freedom requires more than simply non-frustration; it requires non-interference as well, where non-interference is understood as the openness of options across multiple possible worlds. To give this a canonical definition (or at least canonical for the purposes of this post):

Freedom as Non-Intervention: A person is free just in case he/she is not hindered in doing what he/she wanted to do, or what he/she might have wanted to do, in other possible worlds.

Berlin explained this conception of freedom with an analogy. The analogy asked us to imagine options or choices as doors that we can push upon. It then stated that freedom as non-frustration demanded only that the doors we wish to open will open when we push upon them; whereas freedom as non-interference demanded that the doors would open for us, whether we chose the push upon them or not.

It is important to realise that "interference" in this account is understood broadly. I interfere with your choices if I somehow remove or impede your access to them. But this can arise in a variety of ways. For example, I could penalise your choices, manipulate them, deceive you about certain outcomes or simply threaten you. Each of these things could count as interference.

2. The Adaptation Argument
Which conception of freedom is to be preferred? Bramhall's counterexample provides some reason to doubt the non-frustration conception, but it is far from definitive. A better argument, which was endorsed by Berlin, is based on the problem of preference-adaptation. The claim underlying this argument is that freedom as non-frustration cannot be a satisfactory account of political freedom as it leads to the absurd conclusion that one can increase one's freedom by adapting one's preferences to match the preferences of those who are dispositionally inclined to interfere with one's decisions.

Pettit offers a six-step, formal presentation of this adaptation argument. I don't really like his formulation, but since it is in the source material for this post, I feel it incumbent upon me to re-present it here. So here it is:

  • (1) Suppose with Hobbes that you enjoy freedom in choice between A and B just in case you avoid interference in the option that you actually choose, i.e. you avoid frustration.
  • (2) By supposition, you do not enjoy freedom of choice in the case where A attracts my interference, B does not, and you choose A.
  • (3) But, by supposition, you would enjoy freedom of choice, in that case, were you to choose B.
  • (4) If you know the situation, therefore, it appears that you can ensure your freedom of choice, without constraining my interference, by adapting your preferences and choosing B.
  • (5) But this is absurd. You cannot make yourself free just by accommodating yourself to my disposition to interfere.
  • (6) Thus, the original supposition that non-frustration is enough for freedom must be false.

I think the thrust of this argument is relatively clear, but an example might help to underscore it. Imagine you are a prisoner and I am a prison-warden. You know that I would stop you if you tried to escape, so you adjust your preferences in a such a way that you are happy to stay in prison. Consequently, you are not frustrated in what you want to do, but surely you cannot be said to be free in any important sense. Adapting your preferences is not enough for that.

There is one important qualification to this. Preference adaptation cannot make you more free where you use it to eliminate an option from consideration; but it can make you more free if you use it to increase the number of options available to you. Pettit gives the example of someone who doesn't like to go hiking at the weekends, but adapts their preferences in order to be able to spend time with their friend who goes hiking every weekend. There is nothing freedom-undermining about adaptation in this cases.

The adaptation argument helps make the case for Berlin's preferred conception of freedom as non-interference. That conception would, after all, block the absurdity in question: you as a prisoner would not be free since I am blocking your access to an option you might have otherwise chosen. And yet, surprisingly, contemporary defenders of freedom as noninterference sometimes seem to slip back into the notion of freedom as non-frustration. Pettit cites the example of Robert Goodin and Frank Jackson in this regard. In their article "Freedom from Fear", these authors make the case for a conception of negative freedom that is built around the idea of maximising expected non-interference (or, what is the same thing, minimising expected interference). What these authors neglect is that one can minimise expected interference by adapting one's preferences as well as by removing sources of interference.

Consequently, Pettit thinks the lesson of the adaptation argument is an important one, one that we would do well to remember: political freedom requires more than just the ability to fulfill your preferences. Nevertheless, he doesn't think that Berlin's preferred conception is fully satisfactory. It too is vulnerable to a reductio-style objection. We will consider this objection in the next post.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Pettit on Republicanism and the Basic Income

As an addendum to my recent series on libertarianism and the basic income, I thought I would look at another political philosophy and the case it makes for the same proposal. The philosophy in question is civic republicanism, which has its roots in antiquity, but has most recently been defended by the philosopher Philip Pettit. Republicanism is a distinct branch of liberalism. Like mainstream forms of liberalism, it is concerned with individual freedom; unlike mainstream forms of liberalism, it offers a conception of what it means for an individual to be free in terms of structural relationships of power.

In his article, “A Republican Right to Basic Income”, Pettit argues that civic republicanism can provide a compelling argument for a universal basic income (UBI). Since I never know who might be reading these posts, or whether they’ve read previous posts, I feel it incumbent upon me to review what is meant by the UBI. In brief, it is a proposal to reform the way in which welfare is paid, such that everyone, regardless of means and willingness to work, is entitled to the same basic income.

At the outset of his article, Pettit suggests that any successful case for the UBI will have to satisfy two desiderata:

Adequacy: It will have to argue for a basic income level that is adequate, in some appropriately defined sense of adequacy (e.g. above poverty level).
Independence or Unconditionality: It will have to argue for a basic income that is not dependent on the satisfaction of other conditions, e.g. willingness to work or lack of other income. (Pettit calls this the “independence” desideratum; I’m calling it the “unconditionality” desideratum, as that strikes me as being more descriptive)

His main thesis is that a republican argument for the UBI better satisfies these desiderata than do utilitarian or more traditional liberal arguments for the UBI.

To understand this argument, I’m going to break this post down into three sections. In the first, I’ll look at Pettit’s critique of the utilitarian and liberal arguments for the UBI. In the second, I’ll talk about the difference between freedom as non-interference and freedom as non-domination, the latter of which is central to the Pettitian conception of republicanism. And in the third, I’ll outline Pettit’s republican argument for the UBI.

1. The Failure of Utilitarianism and Liberalism to Justify the UBI
As a political theory, utilitarianism is concerned with identifying and implementing policy proposals that maximise utility (however that is understood). Assuming the traditional welfare conception of utilitarianism (as, for example, defended by Robert Goodin), it is relatively easy to see how a utilitarian could make a case for the UBI. All they have to do is show that the UBI maximises welfare, relative to other proposals.

The problem that Pettit sees is that this utilitarian argument is too unstable to meet the two desiderata mentioned above. To be sure, one could make a utilitarian argument for an adequate basic income — after all, the goal is to maximise welfare across the population as a whole and an adequate income would seem to be important for that. But could one really make a utilitarian argument for an unconditional basic income? One of the defining features of utilitarianism (and consequentialist theories more broadly) is that they are highly contingent in nature. They justify particular policies only insofar as those policies do achieve the best outcome. If the facts change, or if other policies are better able to bring about desirable levels of welfare, the utilitarian argument for the UBI collapses.

(One problem with this is that Pettit himself endorses consequentialism, at a certain level of analysis. More on this later.)

What about liberalism? As traditionally understood, liberalism is concerned with allowing individuals to do as they please, so long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. The role of the liberal state is to minimise or eradicate these forms of interference. Pettit argues that it is hard to see how this could provide the basis for a UBI. The challenge for the liberal would be to show that a UBI is necessary in order to stop interference from others. But why would it be? A poor and destitute person can be left to die of starvation or hypothermia, without having their right to non-interference impeded.

Philippe van Parijs tries to offer a plausible liberal route out of this problem. He does so by arguing that, from a political perspective, there is no important difference between intentional impediments to freedom (i.e. acts by others that interfere with your rights) and unintentional impediments to freedom (i.e. natural or social obstacles that interfere with your rights). He then goes on to claim that the UBI can help remove the latter kind of impediment and hence can be justified under liberalism.

Pettit responds by saying that there is a plausible distinction between intentional impediments and unintentional impediments. Hence, there is reason to think the government should act so as to remove the former but not the latter. I think Pettit is a little bit too swift in his dismissal here, but I’m willing to ignore that since the important issue for me is not whether the distinction between the two types of impediment can or cannot be maintained, but whether republicanism can provide a more satisfying justification of the UBI.

2. Freedom as Non-Domination vs. Freedom as Non-interference
The key to understanding the Pettitian brand of republicanism is to understand the distinct conception of freedom that is at its core. According to Pettit, mainstream liberalism is committed to an ideal of freedom as non-interference. This was implicit in the discussion in the preceding section. To be free on this account is to be left alone, to follow one’s desires, and to have one’s negative rights protected.

The republican ideal of freedom is rather different. It views freedom in terms of non-domination. To be dominated is to be dispositionally controlled by another person’s whims or preferences. As Pettit defines it:

Control: Another person, X, controls me when their presence in my life raises the probability of my acting according to their tastes.

He then distinguishes between reasoned and non-arbitrary control — such as advice-giving — and unreasoned and arbitrary control — such as the control exercised by the slave-master or abusive husband. We can call the latter “dominating control”. The goal of a republican government is to remove all sources of dominating control, and hence to realise the ideal of freedom as non-domination.

A standard objection to republicanism is that there is no real difference between non-interference and non-domination. Pettit argues that there is: one can be free from interference and yet still be dominated. Consider the following case:

Benevolent Slave-Owner: Person A is a slave, legally owned by B and hence B is institutionally protected if he wishes to punish A. But B is a relatively benevolent slave-master. He does not abuse or strong-arm A and leaves A to do pretty much as A pleases.

In this example, A is not being interfered with and so would count as being free under the traditional liberal conception of freedom as non-interference. But is A really free in the morally important sense? Pettit argues “no”. A is still structurally and institutionally dominated by B. If A’s behaviour falls outside of a certain pattern, B might be inclined to rein A back in. Furthermore, B will be perfectly within his rights to do this. A can only act cum permissu: with the permission of another. This is contrary to the republican ideal of non-domination.

The point is that, for the republican, freedom is not simply a matter of factual non-interference; it is a matter of institutions and power relationships too. Unless A is institutionally freed from B’s dominating control, A is not free in the morally important sense.

(Note: some people argue that this still fails to pick out a distinct conception of freedom. Pettit has many responses to these criticisms. I am not going to catalogue them all. See here for a general flavour of the debate.)

3. The Republican Case for the Basic Income
You should now be able to see how the republican case for the UBI might go. In outline form, it will look something like this:

  • (1) The republican political goal is to ensure that all people are free from dominating control (i.e. that the ideal of freedom as non-domination is achieved).
  • (2) The UBI is an essential (or at least highly effective) means of ensuring freedom as non-domination.
  • (3) Therefore, the UBI helps to achieve the republican goal.

The second premise is the important one. Why might the UBI be so important in ensuring non-domination? Very simply: relationships of economic dependency, which are institutionally supported by regimes of contract and property law, can involve dominating control. Pettit gives two examples of this. The first is a case in which there are many employees but relatively few employers. The employers can thus use their superior bargaining power to impose harsh or unfair working conditions on the employees, and the employees cannot step beyond the bounds of the working relationship due to their economic dependency. The second case is that of the woman who is economically dependent on her husband. Pettit notes that the husband need not be abusive or violent toward the woman for a relationship of dominating control to arise: the economic dependency is sufficient for that.

In both of these cases, provision of a UBI would free the people from dominating control. Furthermore, the argument on behalf of such a UBI would have to meet the adequacy criterion. The amount of the income provided would need to be enough to eliminate the relationship of economic dependency. Would the argument also meet the unconditionality criterion? That’s a little bit more difficult to say since, arguably, other regimes could be used to achieve the same end. For example, more robust systems of workers/women’s rights, coupled with selective forms of welfare payment.

Pettit responds to this objection by arguing that the UBI would, in both cases, be a much more robust and effective method for achieving non-domination. For example, suppose the woman had available to her a flexible divorce regime, coupled with a court-enforced requirement for the husband to make maintenance payments. That might help to bring about non-domination, but it would be extremely imperfect. The woman may have to pay legal costs, or constantly go to court to enforce payments (as is often the case under current maintenance regimes). An unconditional basic income would provide her with a much more definite and effective route out of economic dependence. The same, Pettit argues, would be true for the workers: even if there was scope for unionisation and a strong system of workers rights, the UBI would be much simpler and more effective. The one problem I have with this argument is that it renders the republican case for the UBI contingent in the exact same manner as the utilitarian argument. Still, that is not too surprising given Pettit’s embrace of consequentialism in other aspects of his work.

This suggests that there is a strong republican argument for the UBI. There is, however, one lingering concern. In removing one form of economic dependency — that between husband and wife, or worker and employer — the UBI seems to replace it with another — that between the state and the individual. People will now be dominated by state, and be just as dependent on them to meet their economic needs as they were their previous controllers. Furthermore, those upon whom the financial burden of paying the BI may fall will experience other forms of domination. How is this reconcilable with the republican goal?

Unfortunately, Pettit’s answer to this is a bit rushed. He appeals back to the distinction between arbitrary and non-arbitrary forms of control, and argues that the control exercised by the state can be non-arbitrary. In doing this, he relies on the notion of procedural legitimacy. As it happens, this is the subject of his most recent book. You can hear him being interviewed about the topic on the New Books in Philosophy podcast.

Unfortunately, I’m not going to follow this interesting debate about legitimacy and its role in republican political theory. It’s much too long to get into now. Instead, I’m going to finish up. With any luck, this post has given you an insight into how republicanism can support the UBI.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Libertarianism and the Basic Income (Part Three)

(Part One, Part Two)

This is the third, and final, part in my series on libertarianism and the basic income. To quickly recap, the universal basic income (UBI) is a proposal for reforming the way in which welfare is paid, moving away from a selective and conditional system of payment to a universal and unconditional one. Libertarianism is a political philosophical associated with the individual rights, the celebration of the free market, and the minimal state.

As noted in part one, the UBI seems to be incompatible with libertarianism. If there is one thing that libertarians tend to oppose, it is the coercive redistribution of income. The UBI would seem to require this. But as we also noted in part one, this doesn’t quite give us the full picture. Libertarianism is a family of political philosophies, some of which accept the permissibility of some degree of coercive redistribution.

In part two, we saw how this could provide the basis for a libertarian argument in favour of the UBI. The argument was drawn from the work of Matt Zwolinski. It rested on two premises. The first claiming that coercive redistribution could be obligatory if we adopt a justificatory approach to classical liberalism. The second claiming that the UBI has a number of practical advantages over selective forms of redistribution. This argument was not without its problems, several of which were noted at the end of part two.

In this part, we are going to look at another libertarian argument for the UBI. This one derives from the work of Peter Vallentyne and is grounded in the left libertarian school of thought. Left libertarians share the general libertarian desire for a robust system of individual rights, the promotion of the free market, and the minimisation of the state; they simply add to this a concern for equality, which they feel is justified by certain conceptions of libertarian rights.

To understand Vallentyne’s argument we will have to do three things. First, and very briefly, we will have see how he thinks coercive redistribution can be justified on libertarianism. Second, we will have to discuss the Lockean conception of rights and the so-called Lockean proviso. Third, we will have to show how these elements can be used to build a case for the UBI. As we shall see, Vallentyne has a tough time showing why a UBI is preferable to selective forms of redistribution. But his goal is, like Zwolinksi’s, a modest one. He wants to show that the UBI is possible on libertarianism, not that it is actually required.

1. How can a libertarian justify coercive redistribution?
We’ve touched upon this before. A libertarian *might* (I say “might” since there are some hardcore anarcho-libertarians out there) be able to justify coercive redistribution if it is linked to the protection of libertarian rights. This is pretty simple observation, but Vallentyne provides a neat illustration of the idea in his paper. I thought it would be worth sharing.

Libertarians are usually quite big on freedom of contract. But contracts typically require enforceability. If I make a promise to pay you X amount of money before next Tuesday (in return for some sufficient consideration from you), I should be held to that promise. I have a moral duty to do so. This is where legitimate coercive redistribution comes into play. If I do not pay you the money, then I can be rightly coerced into doing so. But this, of course, requires the coercive redistribution of money from me to you.
So, in other words, individuals may have a moral duty to make payments to others, and those payments may be coercively enforced under certain conditions. Interestingly, Vallentyne doesn’t think that this justifies the existence of a state per se, but does think it justifies the existence of something similar to a state, i.e. some institution that can enforce moral duties.

This idea is central to his libertarian defence of the UBI. If it is true that something resembling the state can coercively enforce moral duties requiring the redistribution of income, then all Vallentyne has to do is: (a) show that such moral duties can and do exist on libertarianism; and (b) show that a UBI is the preferred method of enforcing such moral duties.

2. Lockean rights and the Lockean Proviso
So are there any moral duties requiring the redistribution of income across individuals in the libertarian state? Vallentyne says that there are, if we approach it from a Lockean perspective. John Locke was a famous British philosopher who developed an influential account of “natural rights”. These are rights that inhere in the individual, and are pre-political and non-acquired. For what it’s worth, I am deeply sceptical about the existence of such rights, and I think many questions can and should be asked about their origins and foundations, but I’m going to suspend my scepticism here. Instead, I’ll assume the Lockean conception of rights and follow Vallentyne’s argument wherever it may lead.

The Lockean conception of rights has two elements. The first, and more widely known, holds that everybody has a right to self-ownership and to ownership of the fruits of their labour. As Locke puts himself:

[E]very Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. 
(Paragraph 27, Chapter 5, Second Treatise of Government)

In addition to this, there is also the common right to world-ownership or ownership of the natural resources. This is a right possessed by all persons equally, and although it does not entitle them to an equal share of the natural resources, it does entitle them to an equal right to appropriate and manipulate those commonly-held natural resources. Again, as Locke himself puts it (with obvious religious overtones):

The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho' all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. 
(Paragraph 26, Chapter 5, Second Treatise of Government)

A serious debate within libertarian theory is whether there is any “fair use” constraint on the appropriation and ownership of those natural resources. Are we free to plunder the natural world for our own benefit? Or must we ensure that enough if left over for others? Some libertarians think that there is no fair use constraint; some think that there is. Locke himself seems to be in the latter camp, issuing his now famous proviso:

The Lockean Proviso: You have the right to appropriate natural resources only up to the point that there is “enough, and as good, left in common for others”.

The language used here — “enough, and as good” — is terribly vague. Nevertheless, it gives us exactly what we need for Vallentyne’s argument to get off the ground. For what we have here is the basis for a moral duty to redistribute one’s income to someone else. Thus, if I take more than my fair share of the natural resources, I am obliged to compensate those who lose out, redistributing some part of the gain I have made to them. What’s more, following the previous section, this obligation can be rightfully and coercively enforced by something resembling the state.

3. From the Lockean Proviso to the UBI?
So we have the first condition for the argument. What about the second? There is an obvious problem. No doubt you’ve spotted it already. The Lockean proviso provides a basis for selective redistribution, but not for universal redistribution. After all, the motivation behind the Lockean proviso is to compensate for the gains made by those who breach the fair use constraint. That requires selective redistribution, doesn’t it? Maybe, but Vallentyne argues that the UBI is still a possible a way of enforcing this constraint.

Vallentyne develops this argument by looking at a number of different interpretations of the Lockean proviso. As I noted above, it is unclear exactly what is required to make sure that “enough, and as good” is left for others. Different libertarian theories propose different answers. For ease of exposition, I’m only going to look at one — the Nozickian interpretation. For the others, you’ll have to read Vallentyne’s paper.

According to the Nozickian interpretation, to satisfy the requirements of the proviso we have to make sure that no one is made any worse off by another’s appropriation of natural resources, than they would have been if those resources have not been appropriated (and hence left in “the commons”). Let’s use a simple example, involving a model state with two citizens, A and B. Suppose both A and B appropriate a portion of the natural resources and make some use of them. A’s usage imposes a £100 loss on B (i.e. B is £100 worse off than s/he would have been if the resources had been left in the commons); but at the same time B’s usage imposes a £50 loss on A.

Following the logic of the proviso, in this highly simplified world, some redistribution of income needs to take place. Specifically, we need to end up in a world in which B has £100 and A has £50. This will require some system of tax-and-transfer. Vallentyne draws a distinction between the following two systems:

Gross system: Both A and B pay the gross amounts of their gains over one another into a common fund (i.e. £150 goes into a common fund). The proceeds of which then get distributed to them in accordance with the requirements of the proviso, i.e. A ends up with £50 and B with £100.
Net system: A and B only have to pay the net amounts of their gains over one another into a common fund. The proceeds of this will then get distributed to them in accordance with the requirements of the proviso. In this instance, this means that A will pay £50 into the common fund, and B will receive a payment of £50 from the common fund.

Both systems accomplish the same end, but the important thing from our perspective is that there is something like a UBI under the gross system. In that system, each citizen gets a basic income grant of £50. B then gets an additional top-up. Vallentyne goes on to show how the same argument can be applied to other interpretations of the Lockean proviso. In each case, there is a gross and net system of payment; and in each case the gross system of payment amounts to a UBI. For example, it could be that a minimally decent standard of living is required by the proviso, hence under a gross system, a UBI grant that is sufficient to meet that standard must be paid to each citizen.

This is certainly an interesting argument, but it is quite weak. It shows that a UBI is possible on certain forms of libertarianism, but not that it is preferable to selective forms of welfare. Indeed, the gross system of redistribution seems quite convoluted when compared with the net system. At least, it certainly seems like that in the simple two-person state. In a more populous state, things might be different. This is where Zwolinski’s argument from part two could play a role. If it could be shown that the gross system of redistribution is less invasive, more efficient, less costly etc., then we really could have a libertarian case for the UBI. That’s an argument that needs to be developed in much more detail.

4. Conclusion
That brings us to the end of this series. As we have seen, although the UBI and libertarianism appear to be incompatible, there are ways to bring them together. If you are the type of libertarian that accepts the legitimacy of some degree of coercive redistribution, and if you think the UBI has decisive practical advantages over selective forms of redistribution, then you should consider supporting the UBI. To do that though, you would need to read up on the UBI and the different practical mechanisms for funding and implementing it. If you are interested, I would suggest reading Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Libertarianism and the Basic Income (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second part in my series on libertarianism and the basic income. The universal basic income (UBI) is a proposal for reforming the way in which welfare is paid. It is thought to be radical because it is paid to everyone, regardless of their work status, or other sources of income. Libertarianism, on the other hand, is a political philosophy associated with robust negative and property rights, the promotion of the free market, and a minimal state.

As noted in part one, libertarianism and the UBI appear to be deeply incompatible. The argument for this is straightforward: libertarians are opposed to coercive systems of tax-and-transfer, particularly if they go beyond what is necessary to protect individual rights; the UBI seems to require a coercive system of tax-and-transfer that goes beyond what is necessary to protect individual rights; therefore, libertarianism and the UBI are not compatible.

But as we also noted in part one, libertarianism is a family of political philosophies, some of whose members may be more compatible with the UBI than others. In his article, “Classical Liberalism and the Basic Income”, Matt Zwolinski takes advantage of this interfamilial diversity. He argues that the classical liberal school of libertarianism could be rendered compatible with the UBI. In this post, we’ll look at his argument.

Before getting into it though, we need to say a word or two about classical liberalism. Unfortunately, Zwolinski doesn’t offer a very precise definition of this school of thought in his article. He says only that classical liberals are committed to roughly the same things as other libertarians, but may be more open to the existence of a coercive state. This is partly because classical liberals tend to be consequentialists, but also partly because of their links to the justificatory school of liberalism. More on this anon.

Based on my limited reading, this seems broadly correct. Classical liberalism has its origins in early economic thinkers like Adam Smith. It is committed to a minimal state, but usually on the grounds that this is the most mutually advantageous system of government. This is clear from the work of more recent defenders of classical liberalism like Hayek, Friedman and, to a lesser extent, Epstein. These thinkers tend to be drawn to their views from a foundation in economic theory, which is concerned with aggregate levels of social well-being.

Anyway, in the remainder of this post I will do two things. First, I’ll look at Zwolinski’s argument for the basic income. Second, I’ll look at the various limitations and objections to that argument.

1. The Classical Liberal Argument for the Basic Income
Zwolinksi’s argument is an “in principle”-argument, not an “in fact” argument. In other words, he doesn’t make the bold claim that classical liberalism does, as a matter of fact, lead us to the UBI. Instead, he argues that classical liberalism could, in principle, lead us to the UBI. His main goal is to identify the conditions that would need to satisfied in order for a classical liberal to endorse the UBI.

It would be easy for Zwolinski to reach this modest goal if he focused on consequentialist justifications of classical liberalism. After all, consequentialists are in principle open to pretty much anything — you just have to show them that it leads to better consequences. Fortunately, Zwolinski’s aims are a little bit higher than this. He tries to show how the UBI is compatible with a justificatory approach to classical liberalism.

The justificatory approach is founded on the notion that the default position in society is that individuals are free to act in defiance of coercive moral demands from others. Or to put it another way, every individual is of equal moral authority: I do not have the right to coerce you; and you do not have the right to coerce me. To move away from this default position, and to impose coercive moral demands on others, we must justify those demands to the individual in terms of moral reasons. This is often cashed out in consequentialist or self-interested terms — i.e. the system of coercive demands that is justifiable is the one that is mutually advantageous — but not necessarily so. All that matters is that the moral reasons are capable of being endorsed by the individual.

The justificatory approach is not limited to classical liberalism, but some of its leading advocates do endorse this position. For example, Gerald Gaus, who is probably the preeminent modern exponent of the justificatory approach, embraces the classical liberal position. His claim is that the minimal, rights-enforcing, free market-facilitating, state is the one that can be best justified to individuals. This is the view shared by all classical liberals who adopt the justificatory approach.

So how does this provide a foundation for the UBI? Here is Zwolinski’s argument. I’ll outline it in spare, somewhat formal, terms initially, leaving the more substantive comments until afterwards:

  • (1) Coercive redistribution is permissible (perhaps even obligatory) under justificatory classical liberalism.
  • (2) The best system of redistribution is one that is universal and unconditional in nature.
  • (3) The UBI is a system of coercive redistribution that is universal an unconditional in nature.
  • (4) Therefore, the UBI is permissible (perhaps even obligatory) under justificatory classical liberalism.

Premise (3) is just stating the obvious and can be safely ignored here. The other two premises require some elaboration and defence.

Premise (1) is defended in the following manner. Although a classical liberal state is the one that is most likely to be mutually advantageous (or appropriately justified), it may have certain imperfections. For example, the gains from free market exchange and a robust system of property rights may accrue to some at the expense of others. Additional redistributive mechanisms may then be needed to compensate those who lose out. Just to be clear, we are not embracing egalitarianism here: we’re not saying that individuals must share equally in the gains of trade. We are simply saying that some degree of compensation may be required in order to make the system as whole justifiable.

That’s relatively okay. Premise (2) is where all the main problems are located. If we accept the need for some level of redistribution, we may well ask why it shouldn’t be selective and conditional in nature. After all, the motivating concern here is that some people are losing out relative to others. Surely, we just have to compensate them and not everyone else as well? Yes, but a universal and unconditional system — such as the UBI — may have a number practical advantages over selective systems of redistribution. Zwolinski mentions two in his article:

Minimises State Intrusion into Private Life: Selective systems of redistribution, as are common in many countries around the world, often require substantial and expensive bureaucracies in order to be administered properly. For example, if the goal is only to provide assistance to those who are below a certain income threshold, we will have to engage in means-testing and other forms of surveillance and monitoring to ensure that the right people are getting the right amounts of money. Universal and unconditional payments are much easier to administer. Since classical liberals care about minimising state interference, they may consequently see the UBI as being preferable to selective forms of redistribution.
Avoids Public Choice Problems: The bureaucracies associated selective systems of redistribution have a tendency to expand over time and for their workers to engage in rent-seeking. This is due to the general social problem that actors within institutions, and institutions within governments, do not always have the same interests as those who set them up. Classical liberals would like prevent this from happening and so, once again, may be drawn to the administrative simplicity of the UBI.

Given those practical advantages, premise (2) can be supported. This then gives us the classical liberal argument for a UBI.

2. Limitations and Objections
That’s just the in principle case for a UBI. It faces a number of limitations and objections. In terms of limitations, the main one highlighted by Zwolinski has to do with the size of the income grant that would be justified by the argument. Since the classical liberal concern is to compensate for losses (to the degree needed for justification), and not to ensure equality or anything close to that, it is likely to justify a relatively small income grant. This will be disappointing to many of the more traditional supporters of the UBI. In terms of objections, two are discussed by Zwolinski, one which he thinks is serious, the other which he thinks is manageable.

We’ll deal with the more manageable objection first. This has to do with exploitation and free-riding. A major concern within the classical liberal tradition to prevent people from unjustly gaining from or exploiting the hard work of others, and to incentivise economic production. Consider the entrepreneur who assumes the risk of starting a business, puts in all the hard work, becomes wildly successful, only to have all his/her profits taken away and distributed to others. This is a nightmare from a classical liberal perspective: it saps the motivation needed for beneficial free market exchanges, and it unjustly rewards others. Isn’t there are danger that the UBI does something similar? Since the grant is not conditional upon effort or inclination to work, it may encourage exploitation of this kind?

Zwolinski has two responses. First, he points out that the UBI will only be supported by reference to what is needed in order to justify the political regime. This implies that some people will have a legitimate moral claim to the redistributed income. Second, although there may be some cost in terms of exploitation, this must be weighed against the other benefits of the system, which are: (i) its ability to address a serious moral wrong; and (ii) its ability to minimise state intervention when compared to other systems of redistribution.

The more serious objection, at least from Zwolinski’s perspective, is the impact a UBI might have on immigration policy. If a UBI is paid to all citizens (or all legally recognised residents) it is likely to fuel anti-immigration lobbying, and hence to encourage the government to adopt a more restrictive immigration regime. Zwolinski thinks this would be bad. It would encourage nationalism and other forms of racial or ethnic prejudice; it would limit cultural diversity; and, most importantly, it would negatively impact on those for whom migration is a path to a better life.

Of course, the problem identified by Zwolinski could be addressed by adopting a truly universal approach to the UBI, but that’s undoubtedly an unrealistic policy in the short-to-medium term. In the meantime, any country that unilaterally introduces a UBI is likely to face the kinds of pressures envisaged by Zwolinski. There’s certainly enough anti-immigration sentiment out there. This would indeed be a problem.

Okay, we’ll leave it there for now. Hopefully from this entry you can see how a libertarian case for the basic income can be built. You simply have to marry together a fundamental moral principle for the organisation of the state (the justificatory principle) with the practical (bureaucracy-minimising) properties of the UBI. In the next entry, we will look at a slightly different argument. This one coming from the left libertarian school of thought and based on a Lockean conception of rights.

Libertarianism and the Basic Income (Part One)

I have recently become interested in the case for an unconditional basic income (UBI). In large part, this has been prompted by an increasing fascination with the phenomenon of technological unemployment and its future progression. Some argue that increasing levels of technological unemployment, and the associated capital-labour income inequality that comes with this, would be best solved by something like the UBI. This strikes me as a prima facie plausible argument.

In addition to this recent interest, I also have a long-standing fascination with libertarian political theory. I would not consider myself to be a libertarian — I don’t really have any strong political convictions of which I am consciously aware. I am, however, attracted to certain aspects of it, in particular its concern for non-coercion and its presumption in favour of decriminalisation.

On the face of it, proposals for the UBI would seem to be deeply incompatible with libertarian political theory. If there is one thing libertarians agree on, it is that forcible redistribution of income is unjust and impermissible. To the extent that the UBI requires this — and it certainly seems to require this — it cannot be grounded in a libertarian political theory.

Or so it would seem. But in a recent(ish) edition of the journal Basic Income Studies some well-known libertarians argued that it might be possible to reconcile libertarianism with the UBI. The arguments require some careful elaboration and outside-the-box thinking, to be sure, but it is still possible. Over the next few posts, I want to share some of these arguments. As it happens, I don’t actually have access to the journal, so I’m working solely from contributions that I could find in the public domain. Furthermore, several of the contributors to the journal critiqued the UBI from a libertarian perspective. I’m not going to focus on those contributions here; I am only focusing on those who think the UBI might be compatible with libertarianism.

I am going to break the series down into three parts. In the remainder of this part, I’ll look at three things. First, I’ll look at the UBI proposal itself. Second, I’ll describe some of the different forms of libertarianism and outline the different moral grounds on which they can be defended. And third, I’ll explain in more detail why UBI and libertarianism seem to be so incompatible.

In subsequent entries, I’ll look at two libertarian arguments in favour of the UBI. The first, coming from Matt Zwolinski, works from a classical liberal foundation; the second, coming from Peter Vallentyne, adopts a predominantly left-libertarian slant. (Note: I did also read Dan Moseley’s article from the same journal, which makes a Lockean case for the UBI, but decided not to include it in this series. Moseley’s piece seemed a little disjointed to me, and many of his most important insights are repeated by Vallentyne, hence my reason for focusing solely on the latter.)

1. What is a Universal Basic Income?
The UBI is a (somewhat) radical proposal for reforming the way in which welfare payments are made. Following the work of Daniel Raventos we can characterise the proposal in the following manner:

Unconditional Basic Income: An income that is unconditionally granted to all members of a social group on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement. It is a form of minimum income guarantee that differs from those that now exist in three important ways:
It is paid to individuals rather than households;
It is paid irrespective of income from other sources
It is paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if offered.

This is a general characterisation. There are a number of key desiderata that we will need to settle before a UBI like this can be implemented in practice. We will need to decide exactly who is entitled to the payment. The general characterisation says “all members of a social group”, but this will typically exclude children and may exclude (though this is more controversial) non-citizens. We will need to decide who pays the income. The obvious candidate would be the state, but technically any public institution could do the job. We will also need to decide how often the income is paid. One of the main differences between the UBI and the stakeholder grant proposal is that the former is paid at semi-regular intervals, whereas the latter is a one-off payment at a certain point in an individual’s life. Proponents of the UBI will need to decide on the payment schedule. Finally, we will need to decide how it will be funded. Some kind of tax-and-transfer scheme would be the most obvious, but what exactly should be taxed? As we shall see, the answer to this final question is particularly important to libertarians.

Many people view the UBI as an unrealistic and impractical proposal, particularly when they first come across it. But quite a bit of work has been done on how it could be work, how its negative incentive effects may be less than you might think, and on its lower administrative and bureaucratic burdens when compared to traditional selective forms of welfare payment.

A UBI currently exists in the state of Alaska. It has been paid since 1982 to all residents of the state (with certain restrictions). The fund through which it is paid was established in 1976 and derives most of its income from the state’s oil industry. The amount paid per annum is quite low, hovering between $800 and $2000 for the past 25 years. A more radical UBI will be put before the Swiss people in the near future. It proposes that $2800 dollars be paid to each citizen per month. This amounts to approximately 42% of the GDP per capita in that country.

2. What is libertarianism and how can it be justified?
This is a tricky question. As with any long-standing political philosophy, “libertarianism” has come to denote a broad, often fractious, group of political theories. To make things more manageable, we’re going to have to indulge some stipulation and strategic indifference in this series (for example, the libertarian-socialist school of thought will not be addressed at all). This can be done by following Zwolinski’s lead.

Zwolinski argues that libertarianism is a family of theories, generally committed to four things: (i) the primary importance of negative liberty rights (i.e. right to be left alone); (ii) the existence of strong property rights; (iii) the efficacy of free markets; and (iv) the dangers of a paternalistic state. There are two major branches of contemporary libertarian theory:

Right Libertarianism: Acknowledges the importance of negative liberty rights and property rights, promotes free market exchanges, tries to minimise the role of the state, and has no deep concerns about equality/egalitarianism. (Note: Zwolinski prefers the term “market libertarianism” as he thinks libertarianism has little to do with traditional right wing political theories.)
Left Libertarianism: Acknowledges the importance of all the same things as right libertarianism but adds in a concern for equality/egalitarianism.

Extreme versions of right libertarianism, such as those defended by Michael Huemer (LINK), would completely reject the existence of the state and all its associated forms of coercion (taxation, imprisonment etc.). Since the UBI would seem to require coercive policies of some sort, it would be ruled out by all such theories (unless, per impossibile, everyone voluntarily consented to a UBI). Hence, in the remainder of this series the focus will be on the more moderate forms of libertarianism, i.e. the ones that accept some type of coercive state.

Libertarianism can be defended in a number of ways. These include:

The Deontological Defence: This is probably the most common philosophical defence of libertarianism. It presumes the existence of strong negative liberty and property rights, and argues that any coercive policy must be justified in relation to these rights. This results in a limited role for the state, perhaps only in ensuring these rights are protected. The theoretical grounding for the rights themselves can vary, from natural law to contractarianism.
The Consequentialist Defence: This is the most popular defence of libertarianism among economists. It argues that a libertarian political framework, including property rights and a robust free market, is justified on the grounds that it achieves the best consequences for all. This is usually cashed out in terms of overall levels of well-being or economic efficiency.
The Common Sense Defence: I hesitate to include this here since its pedigree is less well-established than the other two defences. This is, however, the defence adopted by Michael Huemer in his recent book The Problem of Political Authority. It does not presuppose any overarching normative theory. Instead, it adopts a range of common sense moral principles (often a blend of consequentialism and deontologism) and argues that these principles lead us to libertarianism.

The consequentialist defence of libertarianism is probably most comfortable with the UBI proposal. This is not surprising given that consequentialist theories prioritise ends over means. Nevertheless, the deontological defence may also have a place for the UBI proposal. We’re going to exploring this possibility in later entries.

3. Why is it difficult to reconcile libertarianism with the UBI?
As mentioned in the introduction, at first glance libertarianism and UBI would seem to be deeply incompatible. Now that we understand both the UBI and libertarianism a little better, we can sketch the incompatibility argument in more detail. To do this, we’ll work with the now-classic Nozickian defence of libertarianism.

The Nozickian defence is deontological in nature. It works from the presumption that individuals have property rights in themselves and in the fruits of their own labour. This entitles them to use, transfer or destroy their property as they see fit, provided that doing so does not violate anyone else’s negative and property rights. Prima facie, this means that any coercive policy — i.e. any policy that restricts and individual’s negative and property rights — is unjustified unless it is necessary to protect those rights. From this foundation only a minimal (“nightwatchman”) state can legitimately grow. The only form of taxation that can be legitimately raised by such a state is that which is necessary to enforce everybody’s property rights. The problem with the UBI is that it would seem to require a coercive tax-and-transfer policy that goes beyond what is strictly necessary for the enforcement of property rights.

This gives us the following Nozickian argument against the UBI:

  • (1) The state is only legitimately entitled to coercively tax individuals to the extent that is necessary to protect their negative and property rights.
  • (2) The UBI proposal would require a significant, coercive tax-and-transfer policy that would go beyond what is strictly necessary to protect negative and property rights.
  • (3) Therefore, the UBI is an illegitimate exercise of state power.

This Nozickian argument is far from perfect. Premise (2), in particular, would seem vulnerable to empirical refutation. Maybe the UBI would be less coercive than existing policies, and maybe it is necessary in order to protect rights? Nevertheless, one can see the appeal of the argument to the libertarian mindset: UBI is an expansive and radical form of tax-and-transfer, which is anathema to any negative rights fetishist.

The strategy of the two authors I am going to look at is to reject the Nozickian argument. This is on the grounds that it doesn’t give us the full picture: there are other versions of libertarianism out there that are more open to the UBI. In particular, there are classical liberal and left libertarian versions that might provide fertile grounds for a defence of the UBI. We’ll consider these possibilities over the next two posts, starting with classical liberalism in part two.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Ethics of Chemical Castration (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second part in a brief series of posts looking at the ethics of chemical castration. The series is working off the recent article “Coercion, Incarceration and Chemical Castration” by Douglas et al. In this article, the authors argue that chemical castration could be permissibly used, without valid consent, if it is autonomy-enhancing in its effect.

Part one covered the background to this argument. It looked at the nature of chemical castration, the different drugs used to achieve this outcome, and the evidence for and against these drugs. It then looked at a basic coercive choice argument against the use of chemical castration. In the typical scenario, chemical castration is presented as an option to convicted sex offenders: take these drugs and you can avoid or reduce the amount of time you will spend in prison. This will be an attractive option to many. Proponents of the coercive choice argument object to this on the grounds that the choice facing the sex offender is unduly coercive. Consequently, their consent to the treatment is not morally transformative.

That gives us, roughly, the following argument:

  • (1) An offender offered the choice between chemical castration and further incarceration cannot give valid consent to castration [due to coercion].
  • (2) Medical interventions should not be offered in circumstances where valid consent to them is not possible.
  • (3) Therefore, chemical castration should not be offered as an alternative to further incarceration.

Although one could take issue with premise (1) of this argument, Douglas et al focus their energies on premise (2). They argue that even if the consent is not valid, the presentation of the choice to undergo chemical castration may still be permissible. They do so because they think chemical castration might be autonomy-enhancing for certain individuals.

In the remainder of this post, we are going to see how this argument works. We will start with a basic defence, looking at a thought experiment the authors use to motivate their case. Then we will look at a variety of objections. As we shall see, although Douglas et al think that most objections are misplaced, there is at least one that they find mildly compelling.

1. The Autonomy-Enhancing Argument
Before we get into the meat of the argument, a few clarifying observations are in order. Douglas et al’s argument assumes that chemical castration has been proven effective in reducing recidivism rates for an identifiable class of sex offenders. As we saw the last day, the current evidence base does not always support this assumption. Furthermore, their argument assumes that the offer will always be made to convicts in a manner that reduces an ongoing prison sentence, rather than at the point of initial sentencing or as a preventive measure for certain “high risk” individuals. It’s possible that the argument they make is exportable to these scenarios, but they do not explicitly consider that possibility. Finally, they assume that it is the state, through its court system, that makes the offer and that the treatment will only be continued for as long as there are no serious side effects.

The argument itself is quite straightforward. It is based on the fact that the coercive choice objection is dependent on the value of autonomy. In other words, that the presence of coercion in a particular decision problem would not be deemed important if we didn’t think autonomy ought to be respected. Thus, autonomy is the fundamental value in this debate. If it can be shown that a particular intervention would enhance autonomy, then that might be enough to negate the problem of invalid consent.

To motivate their argument, Douglas et al imagine the following case. The case is hypothetical, but plausible given what is known about certain types of sex offender:

Jeremy’s Case: Jeremy is a convicted child rapist, currently five years into an eight year sentence. He has a history of recurrent sexual abuse and has previously been imprisoned for this. Every time he has reoffended. He despises himself, feels remorse for his victims, and experiences his sexual desires as unwanted intrusions into his mental life. He desperately wants to be free from them. He chooses to undergo chemical castration as part of deal with the state for a reduced sentence. The treatment is a success and he finds that with the drugs he is able resist his sexual urges and pursue other projects and plans.

Here’s the question: is there anything really wrong with giving Jeremy the option to undergo chemical castration? In this case, it seems like Jeremy’s sexual desires are undermining his autonomy. They are preventing him from being the kind of person he would like to be. To withhold the treatment from him, purely on the grounds that his consent to the treatment is delivered under some coercive pressure, seems unjustified. Particularly if what we care about is autonomy.

That gives us the following, simple, argument in favour of chemical castration and against the coercive choice argument:

  • (4) A medical intervention can be permissibly offered if its effects are autonomy-enhancing, notwithstanding concerns about invalid consent.
  • (5) The effects of chemical castration for an identifiable class of sex offenders will be autonomy-enhancing.
  • (6) Therefore, chemical castration can be permissibly offered to an identifiable class of sex offenders.

Just a word or two about each of the premises before we proceed to the objections. Premise (4) is worded in a slightly odd manner. It speaks only to cases in which the treatment is “offered” to someone. But one could argue that if concerns about consent can be overridden by an autonomy-enhancing effect, then there is no reason why the forcible or compulsory imposition of medical treatment would not be permissible too. Interestingly, Douglas et al don’t seem to endorse this position — though they do make some vague gestures in its direction; they seem to think the “offer” is still important. I can see why. I would certainly feel more queasy about the situation if there were no offer. Nevertheless, keeping the offer condition may not be enough. I can imagine some people challenging the argument on the grounds that it sets up a slippery slope into the forcible use of certain medical interventions.

Premise (5) is, of course, the key claim about chemical castration. How plausible is it? One problem with the claim is that the concept of autonomy, and the conditions that serve to promote or undermine it, is highly controversial. Still, Douglas et al argue that several of the leading accounts of autonomy would support the claim that any drug that removes an overwhelming and intrusive sexual desire is autonomy-enhancing. For example, rationalist theories of autonomy hold that one is autonomous if one acts on the basis of rational beliefs and desires. The kinds of sexual desire experienced by Jeremy would be irrational. Similarly, on a Frankfurtian or Dworkinian conception of autonomy, what matters is that we act in accordance with our second order, reflective desires, not our first-order impulsive ones. In the hypothetical case, Jeremy appears to be at the mercy of his first-order desires, and so removing those would be autonomy-enhancing.

In addition to all this, undergoing chemical castration would be autonomy-enhancing in a much more mundane sense. Being imprisoned is a constraint on autonomy (justified though it may be), and so anything that removes that constraint might be said to be autonomy-enhancing (provided it doesn’t have other, autonomy-reducing, consequences). That would appear to be true in Jeremy’s case.

So the conclusion seems to hold: chemical castration may be permissibly offered to an offender, even if valid consent is a problem.

2. Objections and Replies
Douglas et al look at a variety of objections to this simple argument in their paper. I’ll focus on the four that I think are the most significant.

The first objection appeals to the priority (perhaps even the lexical priority) of maintaining the current level of autonomy over-and-above promoting long-term autonomy at the expense of current autonomy. Similar arguments abound elsewhere in moral and political philosophy. For example, negative utilitarians hold that our primary goal should be to minimise suffering, not to promote well-being. Thus, if forced to choose between maintaining the current level of well-being and reducing it in order to achieve some long-term gain, we should choose the former not the latter. The idea in the chemical castration case is that we should not pursue any policies that undermine or negate autonomy in the short-term, even if there are long-term benefits. This might be encapsulated in the oft-heard slogan that we should “respect autonomy”.

There are a few problems with this objection. It might have some force if the autonomy gains were going to be minimal (e.g. treatment for some minor autonomy-undermining condition). But in the kinds of case envisaged by Douglas et al, the compulsive desires are likely to have a severely debilitative effect. Think of the short-term discomfort of a vaccination versus the long-term benefits of immunity from the disease and you might get the picture. Much more importantly, however, is the fact that the use of chemical castration may not actually deplete autonomy in the short term at all. The baseline level of autonomy for the prisoner is low. The offer does not decrease it any further. If anything, availing of the offer immediately increases the level of autonomy.

The second objection holds that not all increases in the number of options facing a particular agent are autonomy-enhancing. If true, this would be a problem for Douglas et al’s argument as they are essentially arguing that the sex offender’s autonomy is enhanced (immediately) in the case under consideration because the number of options they face increases from one (stay in prison) to two (stay in prison, or be released).

But is it true? The objection rests on the belief that sometimes presenting an option to an agent can be autonomy-depleting if the option in question appeals to some irrational desire. For example, a heroin addict who has the option to take a shot of heroin is arguably less autonomous than a heroin addict with no access to the drug. Could the same not be said of the imprisoned sex offender? Could they not have an irrational desire to be released from prison, or to please the public by undergoing chemical castration? Maybe, but it’s difficult to see why this would have to be the case, unless we assume that no one in their right mind could ever volunteer for chemical castration. Surely in some cases the desire to avoid imprisonment and to be rid of compulsive sexual urges is not irrational? In those cases, the choice could be legitimately presented to the offender.

The third objection holds that for some people the sexual urges will not be autonomy-undermining and hence their removal will not be autonomy-enhancing. Consider once more the Frankfurtian account of autonomy, according to which autonomy involves consistency with second-order reflective desires. If there is a sex offender who endorses his sexual desires, in a second-order and reflective manner, then they will be untouched by Douglas et al’s argument.

But then so what? The argument was never that all sex offenders could and should be presented with the option of chemical castration, only that an identifiable class could be. Evidence also suggests that sex offenders that do not suffer from recognised paraphilias are less responsive to the drugs. For this class of sex offenders, the option should not be presented. This doesn’t defeat the autonomy-enhancing argument.

The fourth, and final objection, is that in some cases the existing conditions of incarceration are so awful that adding the option of voluntary chemical castration for a reduction in sentence is not a moral improvement. Douglas et al’s argument assumes that the continuing incarceration is itself a justifiable restriction of autonomy. In other words, it assumes that the autonomy baseline in the scenario is itself morally justified. But if this assumption is wrong — if the incarceration is actually unjustifiable — adding the option of chemical castration may simply make a bad situation even worse.

Consider the following analogy:

Kidnap: Alan kidnaps Bob’s son. He then offers to release the child if Bob pays a ransom.

Clearly, the release of the child would be autonomy-enhancing in this scenario. But, just as clearly, this doesn’t mean that Alan is justified in presenting that option to Bob. It might be that incarceration is like this. As Douglas et al put it, in at least some jurisdictions prisoners are subjected to all manner of ill-treatments, from rape and physical assault, to serious deprivation and forced labour. This would probably make the incarceration unjustifiable, and consequently the option of chemical castration improper.

Douglas et al accept the force of this criticism, and argue that if this is the case we should aim to reform the system of incarceration, not offer piecemeal reforms to it (such as offering individual prisoners the choice of chemical castration).

3. Conclusion
In summary, the current evidence on chemical castration is mixed. It may reduce recidivism rates among certain sex offenders, but further studies are required. But if we assume that it is effective, and that the side effects of long-term usage can be minimised, then we may have reason to think it ought to be presented as an option to a certain class of sex offenders. For not only would the medication have a social benefit in terms of reduced rates of recidivism, it would also have a personal benefit for the sex offender in terms of autonomy enhancement.

This is a provocative argument, and Douglas et al do a reasonably good job of defending it in their article. Still, even they concede that there may be cases in which its use is morally impermissible. This would be particularly true whenever the conditions of incarceration are themselves unjustifiable.