On some alleged quantifier shift fallacies, Part I

If every reader of this blog owns a computer, it doesn’t follow that there is some one computer that every reader of this blog owns.  To think otherwise is to commit what is known as a quantifier shift fallacy.  A reader asks me to comment on the following passage from the second edition of Harry Gensler’s Introduction to Logic:  

Some great minds have committed this quantifier shift fallacy.  Aristotle argued, “Every agent acts for an end, so there must be some (one) end for which every agent acts.”  St Thomas Aquinas argued, “If everything at some time fails to exist, then there must be some (one) time at which everything fails to exist.”  And John Locke argued, “Everything is caused by something, so there must be some (one) thing that caused everything.”  (p. 220) 

Such claims about Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke are often made.  Are they true?  The answer, in my view, is that they are not true – certainly not in the cases of Aristotle and Aquinas, and arguably not in the case of Locke either.

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of some apposite remarks made by Christopher Martin, which I had reason to quote not too long ago: 

As [Peter] Geach points out, if we wish to show that an argument is invalid, it is not sufficient to show that it can be represented as instantiating an invalid form. It might instantiate an invalid form and at the same time instantiate a valid form: and for an argument to be valid it is sufficient that it should instantiate a valid form. The potentially vast numbers of invalid forms which it may instantiate are completely irrelevant.  (Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, p. 161) 

There is no doubt that Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke could be read in the way Gensler and so many others suggest.  (Gensler is not actually quoting them, by the way, but paraphrasing what he is assumes is the gist of what they had to say.)  What is at issue is whether they should be read that way, whether it is plausible that they meant to say what Gensler thinks they did.  And in fact there are other plausible readings of the relevant texts that do not involve any quantifier shift fallacy.  Given that these readings are available, and that the writers in question are, as Gensler says, “great minds” who would surely be unlikely to commit so blatant a fallacy, the reasonable conclusion to draw is that they did not in fact commit it. 

Consider first the case of Aquinas.  The fallacy in question is allegedly committed in the last sentence of this passage from the Third Way: 

We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be.  But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not.  Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. 

Now since I dealt with the present objection in my book Aquinas, I have the luxury of quoting the relevant material here.  What I have to say is best understood in the context of what I say about another objection sometimes raised against this passage (in particular, against the claim made in its second sentence), so the paragraphs that follow (from pp. 91-95) address that separate objection first: 

One common objection to the Third Way… is the suggestion that Aquinas commits an obvious fallacy when he claims that “that which is possible not to be at some time is not,” for even if it is possible for something to go out of existence, it simply doesn’t follow that it will actually do so.  This objection would clearly be correct if by “possible not to be” Aquinas meant “non-existent in some possible world” or “the non-existence of which is logically possible,” for it is obvious that neither the fact that there is a possible world in which something doesn’t exist nor the fact that there is no self-contradiction involved in denying its existence entails anything about its longevity in the actual world.  Similarly, it is sometimes claimed against cosmological arguments that only propositions can be necessary, and not things.  This too might be a good objection to Aquinas if by “necessary” he meant “logically necessary.”  But again, Aquinas does not in fact mean “possible” or “necessary” in any of these modern senses, so these objections are irrelevant.  

What Aquinas does mean is indicated by the reason he gives for saying that some things are possibly either existent or non-existent, namely that we observe them to be generated and corrupted.  Now as we saw in chapter 2, for Aquinas generation and corruption, coming into being and passing away, characterize the things of our experience because they are composites of form and matter.  Their coming to be is just the acquisition by a certain parcel of matter of a certain form, and their passing away is just the loss by a certain parcel of matter of a certain form.  Hence it is ultimately this composite, hylemorphic nature that makes it the case that they are “possible to be and not to be” (ST I.2.3); it has nothing to do with possible worlds, with there being no self-contradiction involved in denying their existence, or any other such thing.  The “possibility” in question is not some abstract logical possibility but rather something “inherent,” a tendency “to be corrupted” rooted “in the nature of those things… whose matter is subject to contrariety of forms” (QDP 5.3).  In other words, given that the matter out of which the things of our experience is composed is always inherently capable of taking on forms different from the ones it happens currently to instantiate, these things have a kind of inherent metaphysical instability that guarantees that they will at some point fail to exist.  They have no potency or potential for changeless, indefinite existence; hence they cannot exist indefinitely. 

By “possible not to be,” then, what Aquinas means is something like “having a tendency to stop existing,”  “inherently transitory,” or “impermanent”; and by “necessary” he just means something that is not like this, something that is everlasting, permanent, or non-transitory.  Thus there is no fallacy in his inference from “such-and-such is possible not to be” to “such-and-such at some time is not,” for this would follow given an Aristotelian understanding of the nature of material substances.  Given enough time, such a substance would, if left to itself, have to go out of existence eventually.  There is no sense to be made of the idea that it might be “possible” for it not to exist and yet that it never in fact goes out of existence no matter how much time passes and even if nothing acts to frustrate its tendency toward corruption, for in that case the claim that it has an inherent tendency toward corruption would be unintelligible.  Something that always exists would by that very fact show that it is something whose nature does not include any inherent tendency toward corruption, and thus that it is necessary (In DC I.29). 

However, this still leaves untouched an apparently more serious difficulty with the Third Way.  Even if it is granted that Aquinas is justified in holding that whatever is “possible not to be” will at some time go out of existence, it is widely held that his further inference to the effect that if everything were “possible not to be” or contingent, then at one time nothing would have existed, is clearly fallacious.  Specifically, it is claimed that he is guilty here of a “quantifier shift” fallacy, of inferring from “Everything has some time at which it does not exist” to “There is some time at which everything does not exist.”  This is called a “quantifier shift” fallacy because the quantifying expression “everything” shifts position from the first statement to the second.  That it is a fallacy can be seen by comparing the argument above with parallel arguments that are clearly fallacious.  If every student in the room owns a pencil, it does not follow that there is a certain pencil that every student in the room owns; if every human being has someone as a mother, it does not follow that there is someone who is the mother of every human being; and so forth.  Similarly, even if every contingent thing goes out of existence at some time, it does not follow that there is some time when they all go out of existence together.  An alternative possibility is that even though every contingent thing goes out of existence at some point, there is always at least one other contingent thing that continues to exist in the meantime, and this overlapping series of contingent things could continue on infinitely.  (Certainly Aquinas could not rule such an infinite regress out, since it would involve a causal series ordered per accidens extending backward in time, and as we have seen, Aquinas concedes for the sake of argument that such a series might not have a first member.)  In this case, though, Aquinas’s conclusion to the effect that if everything were contingent than nothing would exist now would be blocked, and the Third Way would fail. 

But common though this objection is, it is not in fact fatal to Aquinas’s argument, for he need not be interpreted as arguing in the fallacious manner described.  As several commentators have suggested, what Aquinas really seems to be getting at is the idea that given an infinite stretch of time, and given also the Aristotelian conception of necessity and possibility described above, then if it is even possible for every contingent thing to go out of existence together (which even Aquinas’s critic must concede), this possibility must actually come about.  For (again, at least given an Aristotelian conception of possibility) it would be absurd to suggest both that it is possible for every contingent thing to go out of existence together, and yet that over even an infinite amount of time this will never in fact occur.  “Possibility” here entails an inherent tendency, which must manifest itself given sufficient time, and an infinite amount of time is obviously more than sufficient.  Hence if everything really were contingent, there would have been some time in the past at which nothing existed, in which case nothing would exist now, which is absurd, etc., and Aquinas’s argument would (up to this stage in the proof at least) be vindicated.  (Note that it would not help the critic to suggest that the series of contingent things had a beginning in time after all rather than being infinite, for in that case Aquinas could simply say that given the principle of causality this beginning must then have had a cause and that this cause would have to be something non-contingent, i.e. necessary, which is of course what he has been trying to prove the existence of all along.) 

Obviously there are other questions that might be raised about the Third Way and its Aristotelian metaphysical background, and I address them in the book.  For example (to quote now from pp. 95-96): 

[A] critic might… suggest (as J. L. Mackie does) that even if individual contingent things all go out of existence, there might still be some underlying stuff out of which they are made (a “permanent stock of matter,” in Mackie’s words) which persists throughout every generation and corruption.  Now if this were so, then what would follow, given the Aristotelian conception of necessity we’ve been describing, is that this stock of material stuff would itself count as a necessary being.  But (so the suggestion continues) the critic could happily accept this (as Mackie does) given that such a “necessary being” would, in view of its material nature, clearly not be divine.  

The trouble with this reply, though, is that it falsely purports to be asserting something that Aquinas would deny.  In fact, surprising as it might seem, Aquinas would be quite happy, at least for the sake of argument, to concede that the material world as a whole might be a kind of necessary being, in the relevant sense of being everlasting or non-transitory.  After all, as we have repeated many times, Aquinas does not think that proving the existence of God requires showing that the material world had a beginning.  Moreover, as we noted in our discussion of hylemorphism in chapter 2, Aquinas himself insists that while individual material things are generated and corrupted, matter and form themselves are (apart from special divine creation, to which he would not appeal for the purposes of the argument at hand lest he argue in a circle) not susceptible of generation and corruption.  Far from regarding the notion of the material world as necessary as a blow to the project of the Third Way, Aquinas would in fact regard it as a vindication of his claim that there must be a necessary being.  Indeed, he recognizes the existence of other non-divine necessary beings as well, such as angels and even heavenly bodies (which, given the astronomical knowledge then available, the medievals mistakenly regarded as not undergoing corruption). 

That this should not be surprising, and in particular that it should not be regarded as damaging to the aim of proving the existence of God specifically, should be evident when we remember that proving the existence of a necessary being is only one component of the overall argumentative strategy of the Third Way.  For recall that at this stage of the argument Aquinas immediately goes on to say that “every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not” and then argues that a series of necessary beings cannot go on to infinity… 

In particular (as I go on to explain), given a hylemorphic analysis of material objects, neither matter nor form nor a composite of matter and form could have its necessity in itself (if it has any necessity at all), but would have to derive it from something else.  Only that which is pure actuality could even in principle have its necessity of itself.  But as they say, read the whole thing.  What has been said here suffices to show that there is no good reason to think Aquinas guilty of a quantifier shift fallacy. 

We’ll look at Locke and Aristotle in two further posts.


Routledge Handbook

The Routledge Handbook of Human Rights, edited by Thomas Cushman, will be published this summer.  The book includes my essay “The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Rights.”  If you have a spare $180, do pick up a copy.  Otherwise, you might look for it in your nearest academic library.


Nozick’s Tale of the Slave

While on the subject of Robert Nozick, we might note that he’s been written up this week in Slate, in an article by Stephen Metcalf.  It’s a pretty feeble piece – gratuitously snotty, philosophically shallow, and lame even as mere journalism insofar as its central “hook” is just wrong.  Contrary to what Metcalf supposes, Nozick did not renounce libertarianism.  In fact he explicitly denied doing so in an interview with Julian Sanchez given not long before Nozick’s death in 2002 (as Sanchez reminds us in responding to Metcalf).  Like too many critics of Nozick, Metcalf also focuses exclusively on his famous “Wilt Chamberlain argument” (and, as Sanchez notes, badly misses the point of it).  That argument is indeed important, but Nozick gave other arguments too, some of them no less interesting.  Consider, for instance, the argument implicit in his thought experiment “The Tale of the Slave.”

You can find the thought experiment on pp. 290-92 of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  You can also find it online here.  It’s brief – give it a read, then come back. 

Now, let’s consider Nozick’s closing question: Which transition in the series of cases Nozick describes makes it no longer the tale of a slave?  Nozick’s own apparent implicit answer is that none of them does, and that the situation in the last case constitutes a kind of slavery, even if a mild sort.  And since that situation is more or less the sort all of us find ourselves in in modern democratic societies, the implication is that such societies constitute slave states, at least to the extent that they make demands of their citizens (in the form of taxation, regulation, and the like) that go beyond the functions of Nozick’s “minimal state” (police, national defense, and courts of law).  Naturally, this would also entail that non-democratic governments that make such demands also constitute slave states, presumably even more so. 

In my libertarian days I agreed with this judgment, though I no longer do.  The usual disclaimer applies: That does not by any means entail that I now think that “anything goes.”  Much that modern governments demand of us is unjust, and some of it (such as saddling their citizens with crushing debt) may fairly be described as in some respects comparable to slavery.  The point is just that I now believe, on natural law grounds, that it is false to say that requiring citizens to support any functions beyond the minimal state is inherently unjust or comparable to slavery.  Some such demands can be justifiable, even if the demands socialists and egalitarian liberals would make are (I agree) not justifiable.  (Which demands are justifiable, and under what conditions?  There is no glib, one-line answer to that question of the sort a Rand- or Rothbard-style libertarian always seems to want, because the relevant moral considerations are more complicated than they suppose.   See my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” for the way traditional Thomistic natural law theory would approach the issue.) 

But then, where exactly does Nozick’s Tale of the Slave go wrong?  The problem with it is that it is underdescribed.  In particular, the end result seems like “slavery” only because Nozick leaves out certain crucial moral facts.  To see how, let’s first alter the thought experiment a little bit by supposing that the “10,000-headed master” emancipates you, but that, for whatever reason, you go on voluntarily to sign an employment contract with this group of people.  Specifically, you agree to be on call at all hours of the night, over the course of a year – perhaps to do errands for various members of the group, or to deal with various overnight emergencies, or whatever.  Suppose further that after a few weeks of this you get sick of being awakened in the middle of the night and in other ways start to hate the job.  You wish you could quit but given the terms of your contract you cannot.  Still, the group has come to rely on you and would be seriously inconvenienced if you didn’t do your job, and after all, you did agree to do it.  Now, are you a slave?  Nozick would say that in this case, you aren’t a slave, even though you hate your job as much as a slave might. 

Why aren’t you a slave?  The reason, of course, is that in this case you consented to the job, consented to be on call, for one year, to your 10,000-headed employer; and for the libertarian, consent suffices to make the situation something other than slavery.  (Whether agreeing to surrender complete control over yourself for life would generate an enforceable obligation is something libertarians disagree over, but that issue does not affect the present point.)  

But notice that this cannot be a complete answer, for two reasons.  First of all, while you might have consented initially, you might also come to regret this.  You might say “I want more than anything else to be free of this job!  It’s so horrible – I feel as if I were a slave!  Oh how I wish I had never signed that contract!”  All the same, Nozick would say, you are obligated to do the job.  And this shows that, whatever it means to say that you are obligated to do what you consent to doing, it does not mean that you have to be in any way willing to do it at the time you have to do it.  “Consent” in that sense is not required.  Hence Nozick and like-minded libertarians would seem to be committed to the following proposition: 

1. A person can be obligated to do something even if, at the time he has to do it, he does not want to do it and feels as if he were being treated like a slave. 

But notice that even your having initially consented cannot be the whole story either.  For why is it that you are obligated in the first place to do what you have consented to doing?  The answer cannot be “Because I consented to do whatever I consent to doing”, on pain of infinite regress.  Consent can generate obligations only if we are already obligated, for other reasons, to do what we consent to doing.  Consent cannot itself be the ground of all obligation.  Certainly the Nozickian libertarian cannot think so:  In Nozick’s view, it is because of a Kantian respect for persons as “ends in themselves” that we are obligated not to make slaves of them, even if we have never consented to regarding them as ends in themselves.  They just are ends in themselves and that’s that.  In that case, though, Nozick and like-minded libertarians are also committed to a further proposition: 

2. A person can have enforceable obligations to others that he did not at any time consent to having. 

Now the circumstance described in 2 is itself something a person might come to dislike intensely.  In the situation I’ve described, where you have consented to be the midnight errand boy for your 10,000-headed employer, you might think to yourself “I hate it, just hate it, that the world is set up in such a way that I have obligations I never consented to putting myself under – for example, obligations like the obligation to honor contracts that I freely consented to signing!”  Yet the Nozickian libertarian would say: “Too bad.  That’s the way the world is.  Deal with it.”  More to the point, the Nozickian libertarian would have to say that having obligations like this does not by itself suffice to make you a slave.  That is to say, the Nozickian libertarian is committed to a third proposition: 

3. It is possible for a person who is not a slave nevertheless to have enforceable obligations to others that he never consented to having and that he finds deeply odious.  

Notice further that these obligations may not be merely of a negative sort, but even of a positive sort.  In the scenario I’ve described, you are obligated not merely to refrain from harming your 10,000-headed employer, but also to carry out certain acts as your employer demands, given the terms of your contract.  It is true that you consented to this, but you did not consent to being obligated to do whatever you’ve consented to doing.  And in this sense, your consent is only partial.  That means that the Nozickian libertarian is committed also to: 

4. It is possible for a person who is not a slave nevertheless to have enforceable positive obligations to others that he never fully consented to having and that he finds deeply odious. 

Now, keep in mind that none of what has been said so far rests on any moral premises of my own, natural law or otherwise.  All I have been doing is drawing out what is implicit in Nozick’s own position.  But look what happens when we return to the original Tale of the Slave and apply to it the points we have made.  Nozick, it seems, expects us to regard case 9 – the case that parallels a modern democratic society – as tantamount to a mild form of slavery.  But why should we so regard it?  The answer cannot be “Because it involves our having obligations to others that we find odious and that we never consented to having.”  For given 3, there is nothing necessarily wrong or slavery-like with that.  

Note also that Nozick does not tell us in his Tale of the Slave whether the “10,000-headed master” gives the purported slave a right of exit – that is, a right to emigrate from the territory over which the 10,000-headed master rules.  (This is one respect in which Nozick’s thought experiment is, as I have said, underdescribed.)  But he will have to add such a right to the story if he wants the example to be relevantly parallel to a modern democratic society, since such societies do allow their citizens to emigrate.  Now, a right of exit entails that anyone who dislikes the positive obligations a 10,000-headed master (or some government) imposes on him could always escape them by emigrating.  Of course, exercising this option might be burdensome, but if a person could still take it and yet refrains from doing so, then his being subject to the positive obligations in question involves at least partial consent, even if not full consent.  But in that case, if we ask why we should regard Nozick’s case 9 as tantamount to slavery, the answer cannot be “Because it involves our having positive obligations to others that we find odious and that we never fully consented to having.”  For given 4, there can be nothing necessarily wrong or slavery-like with that either.     

So, whatever it is about case 9 that is supposed to amount to slavery, it cannot – by Nozick’s own lights cannot – be merely that it involves obligations to others that we find odious and that we never consented to, nor even that it involves positive obligations to others that we never fully consented to.  For given 3 and 4, which Nozick himself is committed to, these circumstances simply do not suffice to make a situation tantamount to slavery.  

I submit that these points entirely undermine the force of Nozick’s thought experiment.  Probably most people who find the Tale of the Slave an impressive piece of libertarian argumentation do so because they are implicitly reasoning in one of two ways.  First, they might be reasoning as follows: 

Major premise: Slavery is odious and non-consensual. 

Minor premise: The demands imposed on us by democratic and other governments (or at least those that go beyond the functions of the minimal state) are also (sometimes) odious and non-consensual. 

Conclusion: So demands of this sort amount to slavery.  

But this argument is invalid, for (as anyone who has taken a basic logic course can see) it commits the fallacy of the undistributed middle term.  Alternatively, we might replace the major premise with its converse, giving us the following valid argument: 

Major premise: Any demands made on us that are odious and non-consensual amount to slavery. 

Minor premise: The demands imposed on us by democratic and other governments (or at least those that go beyond the functions of the minimal state) are (sometimes) odious and non-consensual. 

Conclusion: So demands of this sort amount to slavery. 

But as we have seen, the Nozickian libertarian is committed to rejecting this alternative major premise, given his commitment to 3 and 4.  Nor would it do the Nozickian libertarian any good to reconsider his commitment to 3 and 4, so as to be avail himself of the proposed alternative major premise.  For one thing, 3 and 4 follow, as we have seen, from Nozick’s basic commitments; to abandon them is just to abandon the foundations of Nozick’s libertarianism.  For another thing, the claim that “Any demands made on us that are odious and non-consensual amount to slavery” simply begs the question against the non-libertarian, who holds precisely that we have certain non-slave-like obligations we did not consent to, even if we find them odious.     

Now, obviously the Nozickian libertarian will insist that, even if not all obligations that are non-consensual and odious amount to slavery, the specific obligations that democratic and other governments impose on us do amount to slavery, at least when they go beyond the functions of the minimal state.  The trouble is that we now need a separate argument for this claim; merely appealing to the odious and non-consensual nature of these obligations will not suffice, for the reasons we’ve seen.  That is another reason I say that Nozick’s thought experiment is underdescribed.  To know whether his case 9 amounts to slavery – and thus to know whether the demands democratic and other governments make of us amount to slavery – we need to know what specifically are the demands that the 10,000-headed master (or such governments) are making of us, and why these specific demands amount to slavery when other odious and non-consensual demands to not.  But in that case the Tale of the Slave itself – with its implied emphasis on the non-consensual and odious nature of the obligations the 10,000-headed master imposes on you, abstracting away from the actual contents of the obligations – drops out as irrelevant, since it would not really be doing any work.  Rather, this separate argument (whatever it is) would be doing all the work.  

So, the implied argument of the Tale of the Slave seems to be either irrelevant, or invalid, or to be committed to a premise which both begs the question against the non-libertarian and which Nozick himself implicitly rejects in any case.  Vivid and interesting though the thought experiment is, it thus fails to provide any support for libertarianism.  Its appeal is entirely rhetorical, and has no actual logical force. 

Again, this does not entail that democratic governments, or any other kind of government, may demand whatever they wish of their citizens without this amounting to slavery.  That a certain argument for a claim fails does not mean that the claim itself is false.  In any event, like Nozick, I reject socialism and egalitarian liberalism.  But the reasons have to do with natural law considerations of the sort outlined in the article of mine linked to above, and not with superficial comparisons to slavery of the sort that the Tale of the Slave rests on. 

Nor do I intend any disrespect toward Nozick or his arguments.  On the contrary, Nozick was a brilliant philosopher, and the arguments he sets out in Anarchy, State and Utopia are important ones that deserve our consideration even if we ultimately reject them.  Certainly they are far more formidable than those of Nozick’s absurdly overrated rival John Rawls, whose main “arguments” are little more than flatulent tautologies.  The contrast between the cringe-making hagiography usually afforded Rawls and the condescension toward Nozick one finds in commentators like Metcalf (and Matthew Yglesias) says more about the commentators than it does about the respective merits of Rawls and Nozick themselves.  Rawls’s arguments are murky, plodding, and (given their ultimate circularity) anticlimactic, but reinforce liberal prejudices.  Nozick’s are clever, clear, and crisp, but challenge those prejudices.  Nothing more need be said.


Meyer and fusionism

“Fusionism” is the label usually applied to Frank Meyer’s project of harmonizing freedom and tradition in a modern conservative synthesis.  (Meyer actually disliked the “fusionist” label, since it seemed to imply that freedom and tradition did not form an organic unity and needed therefore to be “fused.”  In his view, they naturally go together.)  If by “freedom” we mean respect for the rule of law, limited and decentralized government, and a general preference for market solutions over state action, and by “tradition” a respect for religion and the family, then any modern conservative ought to be a fusionist, and most probably are fusionists.  But Meyer himself had more than this in mind.  In particular, he seems to have been committed to a strict libertarianism of the Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick sort on which any governmental action over and above the police, military, and judicial functions is always and in principle unjust.  And he thought that this extreme position followed from a respect for traditional morality.

I used to be committed to this strong form of fusionism myself, but I long ago abandoned its doctrinaire libertarian component.  In particular, I now hold that the extreme conception of property rights and self-ownership that one finds in writers like Nozick and Rothbard cannot be reconciled with the theory of rights that follows from traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theory.   (See my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” – which at the moment is available online here, for some reason – for an exposition of what I now take to be the correct approach to property rights and related issues.)

This by no means entails an endorsement of socialism, the welfare state, or any other sort of nanny state.  On the contrary, a traditional natural law account of natural rights in general and property rights in particular still puts stringent limits on what government can do.  Its doctrine of subsidiarity requires, on grounds of justice, that economic and social problems should be dealt with as far as possible at the level of families, private associations, and local governments.  (We had occasion last year to discuss this doctrine’s implications for the health care debate.)  Hayekian arguments for the rule of law, decentralized power, and the superiority of markets over government planning retain their power whatever we think of libertarian natural rights theories.  The point is that the claim that outlawing heroin (say) is always and inherently a violation of natural rights, or that even the slightest taxation for the sake of aiding the needy always and inherently amounts to robbery, simply cannot be maintained.  Many issues of economics and public morality are more complicated than that, and require careful attention to a number of moral and practical considerations – merely shouting “Taxation is theft!” or “I own myself!” does not suffice.  Nor do Meyer’s arguments show otherwise. 

Meyer’s main reason for claiming that a respect for traditional morality entails a libertarian political order is that for good behavior to count as truly virtuous, it must be freely chosen – a theme repeated ad nauseam in his book In Defense of Freedom.  Now of course, there is much truth in this dictum.  We can agree, for example, that forcing people on pain of fines or imprisonment to attend church services would do nothing to promote a genuine religious ethos, and indeed would surely have the opposite effect.  (Does anyone deny this?)  But this simply does not entail the radical libertarianism Meyer thinks it does.  He doesn’t see this because he fails to draw several important distinctions.

We need, for example, to draw a distinction between requiring good actions and forbidding evil ones.  Now it is not true without qualification even to say that the former cannot result in true virtue.  On the contrary, as every good Aristotelian knows, that is what child-rearing is all about.  Children first need to get in the habit of doing what is good – and to be punished for failing to do so – before they can understand the point of doing so, and thus before they can meaningfully choose to do so.  By the time they are adults, ingraining good habits in this way is much more difficult.  Still, precisely for this reason – that is to say, precisely because adults are adults and thus both responsible for themselves and at least to some extent set in their ways – it is usually counterproductive to try to force them to do what is good in the hope that genuinely virtuous character will result from this.  Thus there is to that extent truth in Meyer’s point that virtue – at least in an adult – must be freely chosen.

Still, this is clearly true only where forcing people to take some positive action is concerned.  Things are different where forbidding certain actions is concerned – where what is in question is, not requiring anyone to do anything, but merely taking some possible course of action off the table.  Suppose you have struggled with drug addiction in the past and I take steps to ensure that you cannot get access to heroin or crack cocaine.  Have I made it harder for you to be virtuous?  Obviously not.  Indeed, I have made it easier, at least in the sense that I have made it less likely that you will fall into a certain hard-to-overcome vice.  Of course, many libertarians will still argue that drug prohibition is a bad idea for other reasons.  But that is beside the present point, which is that Meyer’s “virtue must be freely chosen” mantra is by itself not a plausible argument for eliminating all laws against immoral behavior.

This brings us to another distinction, namely that between virtues which are best acquired through a struggle against the temptation to act viciously, and those which are not.  For example, if you are trying to acquire the virtue of courage, it is a good idea to put yourself in situations where you are going to be tempted to be cowardly and to struggle against that temptation.  But if you are trying to acquire the virtue of chastity, it is not a good idea to put yourself in situations where sexual temptations are likely to present themselves, and if you are struggling with drug addiction, it is not a good idea to put yourself in situations where others are using drugs.  Hence it would be silly to pretend that a society in which drugs and pornography are easily available is more likely to be a society in which sobriety and chastity are freely chosen.  It is quite obvious that such virtues will be less common in such a society.  Of course, many libertarians wouldn’t be bothered in the least by such a consequence, but fusionist libertarians would, and that is the point.  That “virtue must be freely chosen” simply doesn’t have, in every case of moral decision-making, the implications they think it does.  (By the way, those libertarians who wouldn’t be bothered by the fact that virtues like chastity and sobriety would be less common in a libertarian society shouldn’t pretend – as some of them do pretend – that a libertarian political order is “neutral” between competing moral and religious points of view.   Here as elsewhere, such a political order is by no means neutral, any more than Rawlsian liberalism is.) 

A third important distinction to be made is that between actions that are inherently wrong and those that are not inherently wrong but are wrong only under certain circumstances.  Suppose it is always wrong deliberately to get high to the point where reason is seriously impaired.  (I realize that not everyone agrees that this is always wrong, but that is irrelevant to the present point – it’s just an example.)  If so, then it follows that it is wrong to drink to excess, and also wrong to use crack cocaine.  But it is very easy for most people to drink without drinking to excess – that is, to the point where reason is seriously impaired – and without becoming addicted, while it is hardly easy to use crack cocaine in a way that doesn’t involve a serious impairment of reason or risk of addiction.  Hence the act of using alcohol cannot plausibly be said to be always or inherently wrong, while the act of using crack cocaine plausibly could be.  In that case, though, while Meyer’s “virtue must be freely chosen” mantra would give us a good reason to oppose alcohol prohibition, it would not give us a good reason to oppose prohibiting crack cocaine.  Alcohol use can be moderate, and when it is it adds a pleasantness to life that (I would argue) it would be wrong for government to deprive people of.  Hence it is not plausible to hold that alcohol prohibition can be justified in the name of promoting virtue.  But the same cannot be said of prohibiting crack use.  Such a prohibition would not (as outlawing alcohol would) deny anyone anything that is actually good, while it would make it much easier for many people to avoid a certain kind of vice.

Now the point of all this, again, is not to defend any sort of nanny state, nor even to defend any particular legal prohibition.  The latter have, to a large extent, to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.  (For the record, I oppose legalizing crack, but I also think the drug war has been carried out in too draconian a fashion.)  Whenever I criticize some libertarian argument, there’s always some yutz who concludes “Feser wants to impose his reactionary Catholicism on us all!” – as if the fact that I am no longer a libertarian entails that I simply must now be an authoritarian.  But to criticize some argument for P is not necessarily to endorse not-P. 

The point is rather to show that the issues are more complex than many libertarians, including fusionist libertarians, realize.  Shouting “Virtue must be freely chosen!” doesn’t by itself settle things any more than shouting “Taxation is theft!” does.  Some taxation does amount to theft – indeed, lots of actual taxation probably does, or at least is immoral all things considered – but taxation as such is not theft.  (Again, see the article on property rights linked to above.)  Similarly, while there is much truth in the claim that genuine virtue must be freely chosen, the claim is also subject to serious qualifications and does not by itself establish a strict, Nozick-style libertarianism.  Things are just more complicated than that.  Awful luck for people who think a serious political philosophy ought to be the sort of thing you can sum up in a bumper sticker slogan, but there it is. 

There are other problems with Meyer’s position.  Meyer’s arguments in In Defense of Freedom seem to presuppose an Ockhamist conception of freedom as a “freedom of indifference,” as opposed to the Thomistic view of freedom as “freedom for excellence.”  (We had reason to discuss this distinction in a recent post.)  Meyer also writes as if the only alternative to libertarian individualism is collectivism, ignoring the Aristotelian-Thomistic middle ground position according to which the level of the family, rather than that of either the individual or the state as a whole, is the crucial level of social analysis.  From an A-T point of view, our positive obligations to one another are not entirely contractual, but in part natural.  But the non-contractual ones are clearest and strongest at the level of the family, and are less strong the farther away we get from the family.  (As I note in the article on property rights linked to above, this puts the Aristotelian-Thomistic position closer to libertarianism than it is to socialism or egalitarian liberalism.  But it is still significantly short of doctrinaire libertarianism of the Nozick, Rand, or Rothbard sort.)

This is not to say that Meyer’s position does not have strengths as well.  It serves as a useful reminder that it is foolish, counterproductive, and dangerous to think that virtue can be engineered from the top down by centralized government.  While it is a mistake to think that government can play no role in shoring up virtue, it is also a mistake to think that its role is primary, or that it can reasonably consist in more than certain negative prohibitions (where even these are best handled at the local level wherever possible).  Meyer is also right to criticize conservatives like Russell Kirk for their opposition to abstract principle and theory.  Human life certainly cannot be reduced to the abstractions of political philosophy, but it doesn’t follow that such abstractions have no place.  (Here as always the Aristotelian natural law tradition provides the correct middle ground position, in this case between the excessive abstractionism of Platonic political philosophy and Kirk’s obscurantist opposition to general principle.) 

And, again, there is much of value in the general idea of a fusion of tradition and freedom.  From the side of the defenders of tradition, we can find it in classical natural law theory and its doctrine of subsidiarity.  From the side of the defenders of freedom, we can find it in Hayek’s insistence that liberty has its natural home in the context of long-standing moral traditions, which cannot reasonably be overthrown wholesale but can at most be tinkered with in a way consistent with the principles implicit in traditional practice.  Neither of these views gives you Meyer’s doctrinaire libertarianism, but they do show that to insist on the claims of virtue is by no means to embrace authoritarianism.   


Blogging note

There’s an old John Callahan cartoon of a line of people exiting through a door marked “Hell” only to enter through another door marked “Sheer Hell.”  That pretty much sums up what it’s like to go from grading a gigantic stack of papers (as I did last week) to grading a gigantic stack of final exams (as I’m doing now).  Good thing I’ve got some assistance.  Posting may be light for a few days. 


On Aristotle, Aquinas, and Paley: A Reply to Marie George

My article “Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide” (now available online) appeared in Philosophia Christi Vol. 12, No. 1 (2010).  Prof. Marie George’s article “An Aristotelian-Thomist Responds to Edward Feser’s ‘Teleology’” appeared in the next issue, and was critical of what I said in my article about the relationship between the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) understanding of teleology and the conception of teleology implicit in William Paley’s “design argument.”  Philosophia Christi is published by the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and my reply to George has now been posted at the EPS website as part of their online article series.  (By the way, in case anyone is tempted to turn this into yet another episode in the never-ending debate between A-T and Intelligent Design theory, don’t bother.  Like me, Prof. George has been critical of ID.  She and I agree that ID has nothing to do with what Aquinas is up to in the Fifth Way.  What we differ over is whether Aquinas ought also to be distanced from what Paley is up to: Like many other Thomists, I say Yes; she says No.)


O’Brien and Koons on metaphysics and morality

Over at Public Discourse, philosophers Matthew O’Brien and Robert Koons have posted a three-part series on metaphysics and morality: “What Does it Mean to be a ‘Political Animal’?”; “Moral Absolutes and the Humpty Dumpty Fallacy”; and “Who’s Afraid of Metaphysics?”  Give ‘em a read.  (By the way, if you haven’t seen The Waning of Materialism, an important recent anthology edited by Koons and George Bealer, you should check that out too.)


Les Paul contra Scruton

As you’ve no doubt figured out from the latest Google logo, Thursday was the birthday of the late Les Paul, pioneer of the electric guitar and related musical innovations.  Should we be thankful for what Paul gave us?  I certainly am.  Roger Scruton (whom I have also always admired) might disagree.  In An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, Scruton tells us that:

The electric guitar… [is] a machine, which distorts and amplifies the sound, lifting it out of the realm of human noises.  If a machine could sing, it would sound like an electric guitar.  Techno-music is the voice of the machine, triumphing over the human utterance and cancelling its pre-eminent claim to our attention…. However much you listen to this music, you will never hear it as you hear the human voice… You are overhearing the machine, as it discourses in the moral void. (p. 107)

If you are tempted to regard that as anything but over-the-top… well, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Les Paul and Mary Ford.  Just try to find a “moral void” here, or anything other than something delightfully human:

Now, I’ll grant you that Paul and Ford are a far cry from (say) Nine Inch Nails, or house music, which are no doubt the sorts of things Scruton had in mind.  The point, though, is that whatever it is that is objectionable about the examples Scruton means to target, it is implausible that the electronic features per se make them so.  The electronic manipulation of Mary Ford’s vocals is part of the charm of a Paul and Ford tune (here is another famous example).  And are we really to believe that almost the entirety of modern popular music – in which the electric guitar features so prominently, alongside other electronic elements – is a “moral void” in which truly human sensibilities cannot be expressed?  Or that the electronic and machine elements by themselves could entail this?

A machine is, after all, a human artifact, no less than a viola or an acoustic guitar.  What is crucial is what is in the mind behind the instrument, not the instrument itself.  Nor can it be said that the instruments and electronic techniques in question fail to add anything aesthetically distinctive and valuable to the musician’s repertoire.  They are, again, a commonplace in contemporary popular music, for some of which even Scruton himself has confessed a weakness.  As I noted in an earlier post on Scruton and pop music, they are crucial to the sound of a band like Steely Dan, the “smoothness” of which has an undeniable beauty.  Even the most thoroughly electronic contemporary music offers us examples – consider the trip hop mood music of Portishead or Massive Attack, the Vangelis score for Blade Runner, the playful surrealism of Yello, or the sampling techniques of the Dust Brothers (here’s a Beastie Boys example of the latter that I think even a family friendly blog can link to, and a further example from Beck).  One does not need to claim greatness for such music to allow that it has aesthetic interest, and in some cases real beauty.

Nor, where the stuff Scruton might reasonably object to is concerned, does pinpointing the electronic elements really seem to the point.  The most extreme examples of electronic dance music seem questionable precisely because of their associations with the sensual excesses of the club scene, the complete immersion of the dancer in the bodily aspects of his or her nature to the exclusion of reason.  But what do the electronic or “mechanical” aspects of the music as such have to do with that?  The same moral or psychological effect on the listener could be achieved using tom-toms and other low tech instruments.

The trouble with too many conservative appeals to “human dignity” and the like in moral and aesthetic contexts is that they are woolly and subjective, and threaten to remain so when not backed by rigorous, metaphysically-grounded argumentation of a traditional, Aristotelian natural law sort.  The analyst projects what are really just his own contingent and fallible intuitions and sensibilities onto “the person” or “the human” as such.  He also too often forgets Terence’s dictum: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

Singer “in a state of flux”

The Guardian reports that Peter Singer is having second thoughts about some aspects of his moral philosophy.  In particular, he now has doubts about whether preference utilitarianism provides satisfactory moral advice about climate change.  (As the reporter puts it, “preference utilitarianism can provide good arguments not to worry about climate change, as well as arguments to do so.”)  Singer is also now open to the idea that moral value must be grounded in something objective; and though he is still not inclined to believe in God, he acknowledges that a theologically-oriented ethics has the advantage that it provides the only complete answer to the question why we should act morally.

This is progress, though it seems to me that Singer’s conception of moral objectivity is dubious.  Apparently he would ground our knowledge of objective moral truths in “intuition.”  As I have said before, this is bad methodology, at least from an Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law point of view as I understand it.  Moral intuitions track objective moral truth in only a very rough, general, and mutable way.  Practically they are useful – that is why nature put them into us – and they might provide a useful heuristic when philosophically investigating this or that specific moral question.  But intuition does not ground moral truth, it is not an infallible guide to moral truth, and it should never form the basis of a philosophical argument for a controversial moral position.

One must also be very careful when asserting that religion provides the only complete basis for morality (though in fairness to Singer, the article does not say how he would flesh out his views about religion).  This does not mean – or should not mean – grounding morality in arbitrary divine commands or threats of eternal damnation.   To be sure, in my view there certainly are such things as divine commands and eternal damnation.  But (again, at least from an Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law perspective), the content of the moral law is not determined by some arbitrary decree (it is determined by human nature, which even God cannot change), and the rational motive for acting morally is not fear of punishment (it is rather the motive of fulfilling our nature and thus attaining happiness, toward which end practical reason itself is directed by nature).  Conceiving of God as a kind of cosmic Saddam Hussein and of the universe as a Baathist police state is no way to ground morality, and it is not how a writer like Aquinas does ground morality.  That is the vulgar atheist’s caricature of theological ethics, not the real McCoy.  (For what I take to be the correct understanding of the relationship between ethics and religion, see chapter 5 of Aquinas.  I have also discussed the relationship between morality and divine commands here and here.)

But again, this is progress.  The moral positions Singer is usually associated with are odious, but it takes some courage and intellectual honesty for someone with Singer’s extreme views to admit that Christian morality might have something going for it.
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