Friday, August 04, 2006

Merely a Means

In a recent posting on the estate tax, and defending the principle of redistributing wealth in general, a commenter (Oz) offered this:

This reasoning is flawed because it reduces the person with money to a mere means - his value is only what he does for other people. Allowing me a choice of how to donate my money without allowing me a choice to not donate money is akin to allowing me a choice of how to commit suicide.

It represents a fairly widely held view, so I see it as a position that I should address.

I would like to start by making a general point by uniting two examples that will clearly, at first, seem unrelated.

Obviously, we do not treat a rapist as “merely a means” by denying him the option of committing rape. This example teaches us that the crime of “reducing the person to a mere means” requires something more than just removing options. If an option is of a particular quality, then we can remove that option and the people we remove that option from are not, thereby, made “mere means”. We can remove the option of rape. Can we also remove the option of a wealthy person passing on his empire in its entirety to an heir?

One option is to argue that the difference between the rapist committing rape and the wealthy person leaving an economic empire to an heir is that the former uses violence to obtain his ends and the latter does not require any violence whatsoever. In fact, it is us who must threaten the wealthy and otherwise peaceful individual with violence in order to limit his options. On these grounds, we can say that we are like the rapist in our use of violence to fulfill our desires – rather than saying that the wealthy individual is like the rapist in leaving his estate to his heir.

However, at this point we must take a step back and realize two important and relevant facts.

No Such Thing as Intrinsic Value

First, there is no such thing as intrinsic value. However we make distinctions in this or any matter, we cannot do so by looking at the intrinsic merit of one option compared to another. All options have the same intrinsic merit – that is to say, they all have no intrinsic merit.

All prescriptions (claims of ‘ought’ and ‘should’) make an appeal to reasons for action. Intrinsic merit does not exist as a reason for action. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Therefore, to compare different options and to prescribe one over the other in the real world, it only makes sense to look at reasons for action that exist in the real world – which are desires.

We can look at the rapist’s actions and see that they fulfill his own desires. However, they thwart the desires of their victims. Indeed, the mere existence of rapists threatens harm and limits the freedom of whole sections of the population – not only of the victims, but of everybody who cares about the safety of a potential victim. If all desire to rape were to cease to exist, no (or almost no) desires would be thwarted as a result. If we look at desires, there are a huge number of reasons that exist – real reasons, not the imaginary reasons of intrinsic value – to use the powers of social conditioning to inhibit any desire to rape by targeting the actions that those with a desire to rape may perform.

Recall that, on this model, we look at desires, not at actions. Rape may fulfill the desire to rape. However, the moral evaluation looks primarily at the desire to rape and discovers that the desire itself fulfills no (or almost no) other desires, while it thwarts a great many desires. It is the desire to rape that we have reason to be rid of – that we have reason to use the tools of social conditioning to eliminate. This is where the distinction between desire utilitarianism (the desire to rape) and act utilitarianism (an act of rape) comes into play.

The Value of Institutions

Second, institutions – including the institutions of governments and laws -- are tools that people invent to serve a purpose. That is to say, we can only evaluate institutions by looking at the “reasons that exist for action” for adopting one set of institutions over another.

When it comes to evaluating institutions we face the same issues that we have when it comes to evaluating desires. The “reasons that exist for action” for supporting one institution over another does not include ‘intrinsic value’ because intrinsic values are not “reasons that exist for action.”

The only “reasons that exist for action” are desires. From this, we need to look at the reasons that exist for preferring some institutions over others.

I mentioned above that among desires, some are better than others. That is to say, there are some “reasons that exist for action” for promoting some desires over others. These are relevant to our evaluation of institutions. So, for example, the fact that there are “reasons that exist for action” for inhibiting the desire to rape, there are “reasons that exist for action” for institutions that inhibit the desire to rape.

There are more and stronger “reasons that exist for action” for the desire to leave one’s surplus money to a foundation that supports fulfilling a large quantity of desires then there are “reasons that exist for action” for the desire to create an economic empire that one leaves to his or her heir. Consequently, there are more and stronger “reasons that exist for action” for supporting institutions that encourage people to create foundations for the public good with their surplus wealth, then for supporting institutions that allow people to create and protect economic empires.

Reducing a Person to Mere Means

With these two points in mind, I want to establish a sense of the phrase “reduce the person to a mere means.”

One more, a major assumption in this post is that intrinsic values are “reasons that do not exist for action.” Desires are the only “reasons that exist for action.”

To treat a person as a “mere means”, then, is to short his “reasons that exist for action” – his desires. If I look at you and consider only how best to use you to fulfill my desires – without giving consideration to your desires and how well or poorly they may be fulfilled, then I am treating you as a “mere means” – as a tools whose only worth depends on your usefulness to me.

If, however, I consider your desires, then I am not treating you as a “mere means” or a mere tool.

However, in regarding your desires, I am under no obligation to toss my own desires away. If I do that, then I am treating myself as a “mere means” to the fulfillment of your desires. That is no more justified than treating you as a “mere means” for the fulfillment of my desires.

In considering these various “reasons that exist for action” we must consider all of the reasons that exist for action that, for example, are reasons that exist for eliminating the desire to rape. The reasons that exist are also reasons that exist for supporting institutions that aim to abolish rape.

Accordingly, considering all of the reasons that exist for action, we must consider the reasons that exist for promoting the desire to establish foundations with excess wealth that promote the public good over the desire to establish economic empires and leave them to an heir to the kingdom.

To go with the option of creating economic kingdoms means ignoring all of those reasons for action that exist for establishing public foundations. This means treating those people (at least insofar as those desires are ignored in order to get a favored conclusion) as “mere means” for the establishment of these economic kingdoms.

As for treating those with money as “mere means”, this argument for an estate tax is not an argument for leaving these individuals as destitute beggars. It is not even an argument against allowing them to accumulate tens of billions of dollars in wealth. In fact, the more wealth they accumulate, the bigger the foundations that they can create. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett will be doing great things with their accumulated wealth. So, it is difficult to argue that the desires of the wealthy are being ignored in evaluating these institutions. If this is what it is like to be treated as a “mere means”, then I volunteer for the role.

Instead, it regards all of the reasons for action that exist. As such, it treats nobody as a “mere means.”


Oz said...

I think this is my second comment you've elevated to a post; it's a bit of an honor.

I think where we disagree is more fundamental. I don't think the government has the moral right to use taxation as a way to coerce a certain "preferred" behavior in its people. In this case, the government is saying "We have decided that rich people must donate to charity. If you do not, we will take from you what we think you should have given."

Let's say a law was passed that said, in effect, "History has shown that religious belief is, overall, a good thing for a society. Therefore, everyone has a year to decide what religion to practice. If you are still an atheist after that time, we will pick for you and enforce that faith's rules on you." This is quite similar to your reason for the estate tax, and just as fair: afte all, you can freely choose your religion and you have plenty of time to decide.

What if the "institution" I want to pass my money on to is my family? What gives you, a person who earned exactly none of my money, the right to tell me how I must spend it? I think charities are great things; it's coersion I have a problem with.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Let's go for three. I responded to this post in Rights, Utility, and Counter-Examples