catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Atheist Ethicist on Property Rights vs. Survival

with 25 comments

An interesting post by the Atheist Ethicist blindsided me today:

So, imagine that your car has broken down on a trip through the mountains. You have left your wife and kids behind while you went for help. On the way, you come across a cabin. You knock. There is nobody home. You could break in. There might be a phone inside. If not, there is at least food. Is it permissible to break in and take what you need?

As he points out, most people would probably consider this permissible. However,

These types of cases are often used as counter-examples to a strict version of libertarianism that says that it is always wrong to initiate force against another – and taking somebody else’s property without their consent is an instance of initiating force. What this branch of libertarians are afraid of is what would follow if one says that it is permissible to take something that does not belong to you when it is necessary to save your life or the lives of your children.

Those who defend the idea of strict property rights often express concern that any argument that looks like it justifies taking property without consent could then become a justification for a welfare state – for a government that takes property from those who have plenty and uses it to provide live-saving assistance (food, clothing, shelter, medicine) to those who would otherwise die.

This is a pretty good point, particularly because it seems to be pointing to a rational inconsistency in my own thought. I’ve found several of those lately, including my pulled-and-indefinitely-in-revision post on religious groups and protected bigotry. But back to the point:

Strict property rights theorists are right to worry. These types of cases do, in fact, prove the inadequacy of a strict libertarian system of property rights. They prove the legitimacy of sometimes initiating force against those who have a great deal (enough to spare without undue burden) to use those resources to protect the life, health, and well-being of others who would certainly suffer some significant depravation without this assistance.

On a fundamental level I guess I still disagree. I think there’s a difference between an individual choosing (at his or her peril) to break into a house and use a telephone in an emergency and institutionalizing the taking from the rich and offering it to the poor. But maybe I’m just going

… through some logical contortions to argue that it is permissible for the stranded hiker to break into an empty cabin in ways that do not establish a moral permissibility of government assistance.

Could the hiker be fined/arrested/legally shot on the premesis? Sure. However, socially I think there’s an understanding that doing so to someone in that situation is “bad” and it’s generally discouraged.

In the end do I remain rationally inconsistent on this topic? Help me out here.

Advertisements

Written by Admin

December 14, 2006 at 7:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

25 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. It’s a once off. Such an exception would be covered by an exception under emergencies in the common law of property.

    Richard Posner actually discusses something like this in his book on law and economics .The efficient solution is to
    1) not punish the individual for the breach (because the point of punishment is efficient deterrence and there was no premediated attempt to break into someone’s house and steal their property uncompensated)
    2) but ensure that the individual does provide just compensation to the owner for whatever property has been taken or damaged.

    In this case it is more like an involuntary but fully compensated taking and a one of small magnitude at that.

    Emergency ethics do not undermine a philosophical system because by definition emergencies are not everyday occurences. Otherwise you can construct a hypothetical (e.g. 2 people stuck on a liferaft at sea, one ultimately has to eat the other) which can undermine just about anything including a prohibition against cannibalism.

    Jason Soon

    December 14, 2006 at 8:42 am

  2. Is this the secular equivalent of monks arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?

    whyisitso

    December 14, 2006 at 9:40 am

  3. The law deals with this issue via the doctrine of necessity. Thus, I have a defence if I destroy another’s property in order to save a life.

    Moral absolutes are tricky things. It is far better to leave it up to the common law or equity to sort out these questions over the generations.

    Rococo Liberal

    December 14, 2006 at 11:04 am

  4. exactly…you give compensation or get forgiven…

    the government doesn’t take money from me in emergencies and then compensate me – and it could never do this since it has no way of creating wealth, it can only transfer it…

    plus i’d rather some poor person steal some of my excess food than a third party who professes to care about the poor steal it…

    c8to

    December 14, 2006 at 11:56 am

  5. Yeah right c8to.

    You’d prefer someone break into your house desperate and hungry (and risking not only prosecution but if you had your way a gunshot too) than pay some tax. Sure. Those blinkers are sure on tight.

    So maybe you prefer it in theory. Get back to me when your home is next invaded.

    Remember that the people who could do most for redistribution are the very wealthy, whose assets are in general much harder to steal. Much easier for a hungry man to steal from a *marginally* less hungry man.

    BTW, Govt only has “no way of creating wealth” if all the assets are sold off.

    FDB

    December 14, 2006 at 12:37 pm

  6. Property rights versus survival….

    Sounds like a mighty big false dichotomy right there.

    Its property rights and survival…. versus non-survival.

    Even in that emergency situation it ought not be forgotten that the goodies he’s going to steal are only there because of property rights.

    GMB

    December 14, 2006 at 12:37 pm

  7. Jason:
    >Emergency ethics do not undermine a philosophical system because by definition emergencies are not everyday occurences.

    Y’know, I’ve never found that argument all that persuasive. While this can get a bit academic, as whyisitso points out, it seems to be that in ’emergencies’ this is where ethics really counts. When you’re under pressure, do you suddenly chuck your normally stated ethics to one side? Is it suddenly ethically ok to push a weaker person out of the lifeboat and take their place, just cause it’s an emergency? And of course, what’s the definition of ’emergency’? (For example, ABL recently described moderate economic growth as “a disaster”…;-))

    The problem is if you adopt the “ethics of emergency” position, how do you avoid merely being ethical when it suits you? (Or maybe I’ve misunderstood your point?)

    Anyway…ethics is hard!

    Daniel Barnes

    December 14, 2006 at 12:52 pm

  8. There’s a parallel btw this hypothetical and rationing. Emergency situation results from shortages. The market is prevented from doing its thing (simply raising prices to reflect scarcity) by evil gummint intervention, because those commie thieves think the poor will be priced out of the food market.

    c8to – do you think it would have been better in the Blitz to declare an amnesty on housebreaking? Or let everyone with money to buy food bunker down and shoot intruders?

    And so extrapolating from this extreme case, at what point does this perfectly sane principle for dealing with to unequal resource access suddenly evaporate? And why? Why not a *gradual* reduction in interventionist redistribution as we move away from catastrophic shortage – approaching the ideal but impossible perfection of abundance for all?

    FDB

    December 14, 2006 at 1:01 pm

  9. While this can get a bit academic, as whyisitso points out, it seems to be that in ‘emergencies’ this is where ethics really counts. When you’re under pressure, do you suddenly chuck your normally stated ethics to one side?

    I think this is an important point. Fair weather ethics does not count for a great deal. It’s really just platitudes.

    In the situation described I would probably break into the cabin. In fact I have done break and entry before when much less was at stake (although on that occasion I was stealing back property that had been stolen from me).

    When it comes down to the wire I don’t agree with the absolutes of libertarianism. However I think that libertarianism is precisely what our society needs to correct an imbalance in the current social construct. Property rights are not absolute but there has to be a damn good reason to ever compromise them.

    Regards,
    Terje.

    terjepetersen

    December 14, 2006 at 2:26 pm

  10. “Is it suddenly ethically ok to push a weaker person out of the lifeboat and take their place, just cause it’s an emergency? And of course, what’s the definition of ‘emergency’? (For example, ABL recently described moderate economic growth as “a disaster”…;-))”

    It is. You need to get real about this. 1% less economic growth over fifty years is a huge frickin deal. It’s not an emergency. It’s just pointlessly wasteful and repressive choosing to not have maximum economic growth. What is the alternative Daniel? Wasteful industry policy and so on. Just what do we gain from this?

    “You’d prefer someone break into your house desperate and hungry (and risking not only prosecution but if you had your way a gunshot too) than pay some tax.”

    If they took what they needed. Does the Government only take what they need? Ergo, the Government is immoral.

    There is nothing wrong with the situation other than since it is risky you might get attacked by the homeowner if they don’t understand your situation and you and your family die. At worst, you should try to leave a note and some money. That’s just common courtesy. Commonsense would dictate it is also likely there are other settlements with people in them who can offer more help, supplies and set you on your way.

    The question implies if you don’t break into this particularly house, the shit hits the fan. So it is bit of a false dichotomy because you possess perfect information about something unknown but couldn’t plan well enough to avoid the situation.

    Mark Hill

    December 14, 2006 at 2:37 pm

  11. particularly–>paticular

    and other assorted typos

    Mark Hill

    December 14, 2006 at 2:38 pm

  12. I saw that one too.

    Mark Hill

    December 14, 2006 at 2:39 pm

  13. 1% less economic growth over fifty years is a huge frickin deal.

    That is not an ethical argument about means so much as it is an observation about ends.

    terjepetersen

    December 14, 2006 at 3:11 pm

  14. I wrote:
    >(For example, ABL recently described moderate economic growth as “a disaster”…;-))”

    ABL:
    >It is. You need to get real about this. 1% less economic growth over fifty years is a huge frickin deal.

    Well, I thought I was the one being “real” here. Here’s the real economic situation you’re calling a “disaster”.

    “The IMF said that in the past 15 years ending in 2005, Chile’s economic growth averaged 5.5 percent per year, while per capita income tripled, and the poverty rate was cut in half, to about 18 percent of the population.”

    http://usinfo.state.gov/xarchives/display.html?p=washfile-english&y=2006&m=August&x=200608151102251xeneerg0.5737879

    Look, you can call anything a “disaster” if you want. I can say your 1% extra growth is a “disaster” cos it should be 2%. Etc. All I’m saying is that such rhetoric tends to undermine your argument, not add urgency to it.

    (Ps if you want to reply we should maybe retire to the Pinochet thread)

    Daniel Barnes

    December 14, 2006 at 3:17 pm

  15. If it was anything to go by, the Chilean economists thought that they were better off with low growth.

    5.5% is low growth for a developing country where the effect of diminishing returns is less. China has around 10% growth.

    Still, if those Chilean economists would like to a) point out where free enterprise actually creates unsustainable projects and b) justify to future generations why they won’t have better medical care due to their unfounded theories, they can enlighten me.

    Mark Hill

    December 14, 2006 at 3:30 pm

  16. It all boils down to the definition of “emergency” We all have moments of crisis, I dont think that is sufficient to drop accepted codes of behaviour.

    Mortal peril is different from “emergency.”

    rog

    December 14, 2006 at 5:40 pm

  17. Stranded hiker is in panic mode, having never looked under a bonnet or changed a tyre the sudden non movement of his beemer is an issue. plus mobile out of range. plus wife getting panicky which set off kid into hysterics. thiongs are starting to compound. Hiker rushes off for help, finds darkened cabin and breaks a window to sek help.

    Sleeping occupant hears sound of heavy breathing and breaking window and reaches for gun, believing he is in mortal danger….

    rog

    December 14, 2006 at 7:48 pm

  18. Don’t worry SL, there is no contradiction.

    What the author fails to understand is the difference between politics and morals. In my opinion this is the greatest confusion that currently exists among philosophers.

    A moral decision is “what should I do”? In the lifeboat case you give (and other lifeboat examples, David Friedman has thought up many) I think the answer is to violate property rights.

    A political question is “when is it appropriate to officially sanction violation of property rights”? It’s a different question.

    In my opinion the best rules regarding institutionalised violence/coersion is that it should be very limited. This is better because (a) it is more moral, cet par; and (b) even if cet isn’t par then it generally leads to a better outcome.

    It may be true that on a case-by-case basis various pieces of violence/coercion can be justified on utilitarian grounds (as per your example) but under the rule of law you have to set the rules before the actions take place. Those rules should be that you are free unless a case can be made that a change in the rule will likely lead to a signficantly better outcome.

    I don’t believe that legalising break and enter when you consider it important would lead to a better outcome. Individual break and enters might… but the rule would not.

    So — steal away, then pay the price. What you should do and what the government should do are different questions. Political philosophy is only a sub-branch of moral philosophy. They’re NOT the same.

    (In reality I think you’ll find sympathy. You could break in, take some food and leave a note with your details explaining your situation & promising to make amends when you can… everybody would accept that).

    John Humphreys

    December 14, 2006 at 9:21 pm

  19. JH
    The best explanation is provided by RL. There’s no need to legalise this but the circumstances can constitute a *defence* so the case by case can still apply and the presumption of property rights can still apply. The law is not cut and dried – that’s why there are lawyers and judges.

    Jason Soon

    December 14, 2006 at 9:23 pm

  20. PS ethics are not hard as long as you remember that ethics are ultimately just another utility-maximising device rather than some sort of thing handed down by God. Many nominally secular people still have the latter attitude which is why they think they tie themselves in knots over hypotheticals..

    Jason Soon

    December 14, 2006 at 9:26 pm

  21. JH
    Those questions go to the heart of the topic we discussed on another thread which was about Pinochet.

    Lots of libertarians I noticed were very relucutant to see the use of forces against an unprincipled outlaw president- Allende.

    The deaths were as result of his behaviour. Yet no one agreed that most of the blame rests with those who originally tried to steal.

    The point being…..

    The life boat does at times present some real life examples.

    JC.

    December 14, 2006 at 11:39 pm

  22. “Y’know, I’ve never found that argument all that persuasive.”

    Why not?

    That statement is actually hard to believe. Its hard to believe you mean it. You mean to say that me stealing a Coke within the next ten minutes is not any different then under a scenario where I was dying of thirst?

    You cannot mean what you are saying here.

    “While this can get a bit academic….”

    Well yes and no. Its hard to imagine anything more concrete then an emergency

    “…as whyisitso points out, it seems to be that in ‘emergencies’ this is where ethics really counts……”

    True.

    “… When you’re under pressure, do you suddenly chuck your normally stated ethics to one side?….”

    No you don’t. Its not your ethics that change. Its the nature of the situation facing you.

    “… Is it suddenly ethically ok to push a weaker person out of the lifeboat and take their place, just cause it’s an emergency?….”

    Where did you pull that inappropriate example from?

    The answer is of course that it may not be ethical. Nonetheless it might be understandeable. But the scenario itself was inappropriate. Since we weren’t talking about trading lives. But only about a temporary breaking and then restoration of property rights.

    “… And of course, what’s the definition of ‘emergency’?”

    Some of us don’t have any trouble with sussing out what an emergency Barnes.

    I mean there are line-ball cases to any definition. But aside from that I’ve never seen any controversy as to folks not being able to sort out what an emergency is.

    A simple dictionary might be helpful in your case. I myself do not feel the need to even waste time looking.

    “(For example, ABL recently described moderate economic growth as “a disaster”…;-))….”

    RRIIIIIIIGGGHHHHHTTTT?

    BARNES?

    Whats your point?

    When people give an example there has to be a point to it.

    What was wrong with ABL’s definition. ABL is right of course.

    He did not say it was an EMERGENCY.

    He said it was a DISASTER.

    He chose his words carefully and these two words are not synonomous.

    Daniel Barnes….Contra-The-Brain.

    GMB

    December 15, 2006 at 10:05 am

  23. What the author fails to understand is the difference between politics and morals. In my opinion this is the greatest confusion that currently exists among philosophers.

    It would seem that libertarians contribute to the confusion a great deal. We talk about many things in terms of rights and morals. About the immorality of taxation etc. We mix our politics and morals quite readily. Perhaps you could educate us all a little better John with an essay in the ALS forum or some such place.

    terjepetersen

    December 15, 2006 at 11:56 am

  24. Then there is the distiction between real and imagined mortal danger;

    rog

    December 15, 2006 at 1:19 pm

  25. “PS ethics are not hard as long as you remember that ethics are ultimately just another utility-maximising device rather than some sort of thing handed down by God. ”

    No thats not right.

    They are a JUSTICE-MAXIMISING device.

    Not a utility-maximising device.

    There are no such thing as utiles. And you wouldn’t want to use ethics to maximise them if there were.

    GMB

    December 16, 2006 at 3:14 am


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: