Sunday, August 06, 2006

Rights, Utility, and Counter-Examples

I recognize that I have been spending a bit too much time on moral theory and not much time on practical application recently. I apologize for that and promise to compensate in the weeks ahead -- starting tomorrow. For today, I have two more items to discuss that Oz recently brought up in a comment that I think are important enough to be fully addressed.

Moral Rights

The first relates to the concept of a “moral right”. Oz stated in his most recent response, “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.” This, then, begs us to ask the question, “What is a ‘moral right’ and how can it count as a reason for action?”

I have stated that desires are the only ‘reasons for action’ that exist. This means that either rights need to somehow be related to desires, or rights do not count as reasons for action that exist. If they are not reasons for action that exist, then they cannot be used as a reason for advancing or hindering any particular policy.

I have used rights language in the past, so consistency suggests that I have some way of relating rights to desires.

This is true.

A “right to X” implies that an aversion to depriving people of X tends to fulfill other desires.

The right to freedom of the press means that an aversion to reacting to the expressed beliefs of another with violence is an aversion that will tend to fulfill more and stronger desires. It is, then, an aversion that we have (desire-based) reason to promote using our tools of social conditioning. It will do so mostly by helping in the formation of true beliefs, where true beliefs are essential to the successful fulfillment of desires.

Accordingly, a right to freedom of religion means that an aversion to reacting to the religion of another with violence is an aversion that will tend to fulfill more and stronger desires. It will do so by helping to avoid the violent religious conflicts that are tear apart the lives (and the bodies) of those who live in regions where responding to the religious views of another with violence is accepted.

Yet neither of these “rights” are inviolable. The person who speaks or writes his understanding of the government’s military plans so as to deliver them to the nation’s enemy can be punished as a traitor. The person who practices a religion that involves grabbing strangers off the street so they may be offered as human sacrifices to that person’s God is a murderer. Even the right to life – the right not to be killed unless convicted of a capital crime in a court of law – does not prevent a government from taking actions that kill innocent civilians in times of war. Though innocent deaths are to be shunned, an absolute prohibition on wartime acts that might do harm to civilians is absurd.

Now, we have a question of how we are going to account for these exceptions and the weighing of one right against another.

The idea that a “right to X” exists where it is good for society to have an aversion to taking X handles these cases. I would argue that a reasonable description of the limits of any right – when a right may be outweighed and where it does not apply – correspond to the reasonableness of having an aversion that may be outweighed by other desires we should have and of fine-tuning the aversion to specific cases (e.g., an aversion to killing except in defending innocent people from aggressors).

So it is that the right not to have one’s property taken and transferred to another by force certainly does exist. An aversion to such actions does a great deal of good and it shows good character to be opposed to such actions. Yet, like all rights, it comes with limits. Those limits exist where it is beyond reasonable doubt that the public good can be better served by recognizing such a limit.

“Beyond reasonable doubt” means that a suspicion on the order of, “I think it might be a good idea” is not good enough. The exception must come with an argument like that which is opposed to the publication of national security secrets or the free exercise of a religion that demands involuntary human sacrifice. I argue that the public good of enticing those with surplus wealth to establish foundations for the public good clearly meets this criterion of something that, beyond reasonable doubt, would provide a public benefit and which does no great harm to the person whose wealth we are talking about.

What-If Scenarios

Against the above point, Oz wrote:

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: after all, you can freely choose your religion and you have plenty of time to decide.

It is not at all similar. The claim that religious belief is, overall, a good thing for society is false. It completely fails to satisfy the criteria of “true beyond a reasonable doubt.” It cannot even pass the criteria of “true by a preponderance of evidence.” It is false.

My claim is that such an exception is justified only when it is true, and your counter-example fails precisely because the value of religious belief (particularly the value of coerced adherence to religion) cannot be defended as true.

There are two possible countermoves available at this point.

The first counter-move: Even though the proposition is not true, some people believe it to be true, and some people believe it is true beyond a reasonable doubt (mostly because they are not well schooled in determining what is ‘reasonable’). So, the unfortunate conclusion you have in mind would follow in any society where people accept this false assumption as true beyond a reasonable doubt.

In response to this, any time that people accept something that is false as true beyond a reasonable doubt there are going to be problems. The tremendous value of true propositions suggest that the best stance we should take is not to adopt institutions that defend us from false claims accepted as true beyond a reasonable doubt, but to push all the harder for a greater public understanding of what it takes for something to be true beyond a reasonable doubt.

The second counter-move: We can imagine a possible world in which it is true that religious belief, even when coerced, provides a benefit for society. In this imaginary possible world society would be justified in coercing people into choosing a possible world.

In response to this, I argue that I can imagine a possible world in which steel loses all of its flexibility and becomes as brittle as glass. If it were the case that steel were to become as brittle as glass, many of our skyscrapers and bridges would become death traps. Yet, it does not follow from our ability to imagine these things that we have any reason at all to design our skyscrapers and bridges against this imagined possibility.

We could go even further and imagine that an omnipotent, vengeful, and jealous God does exist and that it does horrible things to people who allow unbelievers to live amongst them. We can ask what it is permissible to do under those circumstances. However, we have stepped so far outside of the real world that our question is like asking, “How long will it take to get to the star Vega if one can travel at five times the speed of light?”


Finally, Oz made the comment, “I think charities are great things; it's coercion I have a problem with.”

I have a problem with it as well. However, I cannot justify an absolute prohibition against it. This goes back to the original example of the wealthy person watching the survivors of an airplane crash in the desert die of thirst while he hoards the huge surplus of water he has at his estate. If the survivors break into the estate and take the water, then this is ‘coercion’ in your sense. Yet, the crash survivors have no obligation to lay in the desert and die of thirst at the pleasure of this billionaire with surplus water. The right to be free from coercion, like all rights, has is limits.

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