I am taking a look at three claims that Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) made in a recent opinion piece on CNN.The Egotistically Arrogant Unwarranted Claim to Knowledge concerns the virtue of admitting that one does not know. The second, which I covered in Regarding Penn Jillette's Atheism concerned the claim that atheism can be founded on not knowing how the universe came into existence.
In this posting, I will discuss the that not knowing how to help the poor and sick justifies libertarianism.
And I don't think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don't even know what's best for me. Take my uncertainty about what's best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.
JS Mill used an argument much like this in his defense of freedom in the book "On Liberty". Mill argued that each of us is the best informed and least corruptible agent regarding the fulfillment of our own desires.
If I were to be given control over your life, the first problem you would encounter is that I will continue to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of my desires, given my beliefs. This means that when I make choices regarding what to do with your life, I will be directing your actions towards the fulfillment of my own desires.
You might be lucky in that my desires may included a strong desire that you be healthy and happy, or a strong desire to fulfill my duty with a belief they my duty is to serve your interests. The fact that I will act in such a way so as to fulfill my desires given my beliefs does not necessarily imply that will enslave and abuse you. Though nothing necessarily rules out the possibility either.
Even if I am a particularly kind person with a strong interest in your welfare, we have a second problem. I don't know what your welfare is. You have had a lifetime of data to use in figuring this out. Every conscious moment of every day you are conducting research as to what fulfills your desires. On the other hand, I can only acquire this information through observation, and only when I am not distracted by other concerns.
Think about the simple act of deciding what you would want for supper. I could guess at what you like, but the best way for me to know what you wanted for supper would be to ask you.
It would be foolish for you to trust me to run your life.
In fact, if I were truly a kind person interested in your welfare, I would want to turn the job of running your life over to the best informed, least corruptible agent available, and that would be you. If I have little or no interest in doing that, then I probably have little or no interest in your welfare.
However, this argument has limits.
First, it only applies where it is the case that the agent is, in fact, the most informed and least corruptible agent. It doesn't apply to small children, for example. They are not granted liberty precisely because they lack the information and experience necessary to determine their interests - particularly long-term interests.
Second, there are conflicts of interests. There are cases where one person, acting so as to fulfill his own desires, would act so as to thwart the desires of others.
Consider the following situation:
An airplane crashes in the desert. The pilots, seeing that the plane was going down, land it near a lush oasis in the desert.
As it turns out, the oasis is owned. The owner uses the water that the oasis provides to run a huge network of fountains, fill a half-dozen swimming pools, water a massive tropical garden, fill several aquariums, and water acres of green lawn. In other words, he has a lot of water.
The owner, like all agents, will act to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. However, he has no desire to help the survivors. When he is told that the people from the crash will die without water, he shrugs his shoulders with indifference.
Or, perhaps, he sees this as an opportunity to sell water to the passengers. The price that would bring the best profit, he thinks, would be $10,000,000 per cup. There are a few people on the plane who could actually afford this. Everybody else has to do without. If he provides any charity to those who cannot pay $10 million per cup, then those who can pay would refuse to do so.
Now, let us assume that you also live near the crash site. You would like to help the survivors, but you lack the resources to help much. However, you have the capacity to get water from the estate to the survivors of the crash. Perhaps you work at the estate. Perhaps you are its sole security guard.
Penn seems to be arguing that there is some rule written into the very fabric of the universe that demands that the airplane survivors stay on their sand dune than die, rather than redistribute the water-wealth from the oasis owner to the crash survivors.
It's amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.
If the debate over whether or not your action of getting water to the survivors would count as "compassion", then all we are doing is arguing about the definition of words. That is a conversation we can put off until after we make sure that the survivors get some water.
If, instead, the question is one of whether some mystical rule is written into the very fabric of the universe that condemns the act of getting water to the survivors as "immoral self-righteous bullying laziness," no such mystical rule exists. The people who need the water may have the water.
This does not contradict any of my earlier points that we are each the most informed and least corruptible agents in running our own lives. It simply adds the fact that what potentially fills the desires of one agent may thwart the desires if others.
In this example, I have also negated Penn's claim that we do not know how to help others. In this case, we clearly do know how to help the crash victims.
I would also argue that on a planet that has one billionaire, and a million people who need a $4.00 shot to avoid serious health problems, we also know how to help. We take $8 million from the billionaire (leaving him $992 million), and give the people their $4 shot, spending (in this example) another $4 million on administrative overhead and logistics.
Let us not pretend that we have to fold our arms and let a million people die because we "do not know" how to help them. We may not know beyond all possible doubt, but we know beyond all reasonable doubt.