Monday, December 11, 2006

Survival vs Property

Ethical discussions often use hypothetical (and often entirely unreasonable) cases to illustrate moral points. Sometimes, it is useful to deal with a real-world case, where the tragedy of different options is plain for all to see. The recent news about the family of James Kim, trapped in the mountains with his family, gives us just an opportunity to discuss some important points, while fully respecting the costs of different options.

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?

Most people would say it is permissible. There are a few who say that the right to property is so absolute that somebody must sit outside and starve to death – allow their family (their children) to starve to death, when the means to save their lives is so near at hand.

I have discussed cases similar to this in the past.

I have discussed the hypothetical case of a father who has taken his child fishing. The child starts to get an allergic reaction to the bee sting. The father cannot get his car started. However, another fisherman has left his car in the pull off with the keys in the ignition. Is it permissible to take the car?

Or, one is stranded in a city after a hurricane. Most city services are cut off. There is no clean water – but there is bottled water (and food) at the local convenience store. The store is locked. Is it permissible to break in and take the food and water one needs to survive?

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.

We can alter the situation slightly and ask about cases where the government does not provide life-saving aid, but provides a safety net against the worst that could happen to individuals. All we need to do is ask what the father is permitted to do in a situation where his life and the lives of his family were not at stake, but their health would be. Perhaps the children are suffering from worsening frostbite, or the lack of food is causing damage to their physical bodies. These types of cases can be used to defend the moral permissibility of governments providing citizens with a safety net that goes beyond life-saving treatment.

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.

Some strict property rights theorists go 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. One argument states that, since the owner is not present, the lost hiker is free to break in and take what he needs (and no more than what he needs) as long as he is willing to offer the owner a fair compensation.

But what is a ‘fair compensation’? On a strict property rights system, it would be that level of compensation that would cause the owner to agree to perform the trade.

And what would that be?

Some owners might have sought to take advantage of the situation, offering use of the phone only after the lost hiker had signed over his home, everything in his bank accounts, everything in his investment and savings accounts, and any other real property he owns, as well as a percentage of all future income. The owner might be somebody who would not have allowed the lost hiker to use his phone at any price. The strict property rights theorist has to acknowledge that these are possibilities.

In other words, the lost parent owes the owner whatever compensation the owner would have asked for if he was present, and an obligation to leave entirely if the owner would not have allowed any assistance.

Which leads us to another variation on the case. Let us assume that the cabin’s owner is present in the cabin. We can imagine that the father came to the door, the owner was home, the father offered everything he had in exchange for using the phone, and the owner refused. “It is, after all, my phone,” the owner says, “I have the right to refuse to let other people use it.”

Does he have such a right? Is his statement correct?

Imagine that you are the lost hiker. Your family is near death. You do not have any phone, but you have a pistol you had brought with you on the trip. Would you force the owner to turn over the use of his phone and a modest amount of food? Would you consider the father who did so to be a bad person, worthy of condemnation and punishment?

To be fair, desire utilitarian does not care about our moral intuitions in these or any other types of cases. The desire utilitarian is well aware of the fact that there are cases where it is reasonable to ask, “Would you round up the Jews/Homosexuals and kill them all?” or “Would you enslave all the Negroes?” may not touch a person’s conscience at all – he would answer ‘yes’ without qualification or hesitation. Morality is not concerned with how we do feel about such cases, but with how we should feel about such cases – with the types of feelings we have reason to promote or demote.

Desire utilitarianism suggests that the owner who will not allow the free use of his phone, and even food and warmth, is not a good person. He does not have those malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires. This means that he does not have those desires that people generally have reason to promote through their use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Instead, he has malleable desires that people have reason to discourage – that is, people generally have reason to condemn such a person.

The fact is, people generally have reason to condemn cruel selfishness in others. It is not a trait we have reason to encourage. We have the means to make it less common by using our social tool of condemnation against it and praise for those who oppose it. Any attempt to use a concept of intrinsic merit to defend strict property rights means basing a moral view on entities that do not exist. And any attempt to defend strict property rights on the premise that desires are the only reasons for action that exist will find that the premises do not support their conclusion.

One of the main facts about morality, is that people have reason to create a morality that deals with real-world situations and real-world possibilities. They bring to light the fact that when doing ethics, we are involved in more than just curious academic puzzles for the mind to ponder. We are, in fact, dealing with matters of life and death, and everything in between.


Curiosis said...

Allow me to take your logic to the other extreme. Let's say that my kidneys have failed, and I will die without a transplant. You are the only person who is a match for me. By your logic, my life trumps whatever ownership you might have to one of your kidneys.

If you refuse to let me have it or require an unreasonable cost (unreasonable to whom, by the way?), then I have the right to take by force that which you can survive without and which I must have to live.

You might counter by saying that posessions are not the same as organs; however, the difference is only in degree, not kind. There are instances where I would be willing to give up a kidney in exchange for something else. It is mine, just like my car or my house, even if my right to sell my kidney is not recognized by the law.

Once society or the state can say that they know better how to utilize your posessions, then you don't really own anything. Your ability to use or transfer your property is subject to the whims of others.

My 7-year-old son likes to say that he owns the toys in his room. That is false. He is allowed to play with them subject to my authority, which I can revoke as it suits me. Your concept of property rights is the same with society or the state in the role of the parent. As an adult, I find this attitude insulting and unacceptable.

If I put myself in the place of your hypothetical hiker, I can say that I would, without question, break into that cabin and take whatever was necessary to survive. I would do so knowing that it was illegal and that I would have to accept whatever punishment was deemed necessary by the cabin's owner and the justice system. I am, in effect, trading my freedom for those things I needed to save my family and valued more.

I am not legally entitled to the property of another. If I choose to break the law, then I will suffer the consequences.

Legalizing theft, for whatever purpose, is a slippery slope. If property rights are not absolute, then they do not exist at all.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I linked to your post from a Libertarian blog for which I sometimes write, and there has been some discussion of the topic. Yesterday there was a trackback listed at the end of the comments, but today there is not. Is this just a glitch, or do you not want the commentary affiliated with the post?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It must be a glitch.

I was plotting to write a response to Inquisitor's statement above and post it as a part of Theoretical Weekend. I would like to read the commentary so that I can address any concerns your readers might have as well.

Anonymous said...

Oh, okay. It does seem to have reappeared below under "Atheist Ethicist on Property Rights vs. Survival"

I'm about to read your response to Inquisitor's comment right now.