veil of ignorance

On Self-Ownership and Desert

INTRODUCTION

Fernando Teson, one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians, addresses self-ownership:

Self-ownership is the property right that a person has over her natural assets, that is, over her mind and body. As is well known (and nicely summarized in Matt [Zwolinski]’s post,) Lockeans think that this right can, under appropriate circumstances, justify ownership over external assets.  Most libertarians endorse the idea of self-ownership. Some progressives do too, but an important line of progressive thought rejects self-ownership.  According to John Rawls (in A Theory of Justice,) natural assets are collective property. That is, they belong to society, not to the person who possesses them. The reason for this, Rawls thinks, is that just as we do not deserve being born rich or poor, so we don’t deserve our natural talents. For this reason, societal arrangements that reward talented persons are only justified if they benefit the least talented.

I am exasperated by claims, like Teson’s and Rawls’s, that appeal to abstract principles which adduce to human beings abstract, Platonic attributes. One such attribute is “natural rights” — a close kin of self-ownership. I am especially exasperated when such attributes are bestowed by third parties speaking from a position of judgmental omniscience. Desert is an excellent case in point.

The attribution to humans of ethereal characteristics (like self-ownership and desert) exemplifies the fallacy of reification:  “the error of treating as a “real thing” something which is not a real thing, but merely an idea.”

Self-ownership is in a class with “natural rights” as a condition that somehow inheres in a person by virtue of his status as a human being. I have dealt with “natural rights” at length (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), and will not repeat myself. The rest of this post takes up self-ownership and desert.

SELF-OWNERSHIP

The argument for self-ownership, as forumalated by Robert Nozick, goes like this (according to R.N. Johnson’s summary of the political philosophy of Robert Nozick):

The self-ownership argument is based on the idea that human beings are of unique value. It is one way of construing the fundamental idea that people must be treated as equals. People are “ends in themselves”. To say that a person is an end in herself is to say that she cannot be treated merely as a means to some other end. What makes a person an end is the fact that she has the capacity to choose rationally what she does. This makes people quite different from anything else, such as commodities or animals. The latter can be used by us as mere means to our ends without doing anything morally untoward, since they lack the ability to choose for themselves how they will act or be used. Human beings, having the ability to direct their own behavior by rational decision and choice, can only be used in a way that respects this capacity. And this means that people can’t be used by us unless they consent.

The paradigm of violating this requirement to treat people as ends in themselves is thus slavery. A slave is a person who is used as a mere means, that is, without her consent. That is, a slave is someone who is owned by another person. And quite obviously the reverse of slavery is self-ownership. If no one is a slave, then no one owns another person, and if no one owns another person, then each person is only owned by herself. Hence, we get the idea that treating people as ends in themselves is treating them as owning themselves.

In summary:

1. I own myself because I am capable of making rational choices for myself.

2. If someone else “uses” me without my consent (e.g., enslaves me or steals food from me), he is denying my self-ownership.

3. Therefore, when someone else “uses” me he is treating me as a means to an end; whereas, I am an end in myself because I own myself.

Oops. I went in a circle. I own myself; therefore, I cannot be used by someone else, because I own myself.

Nozick’s proposition amounts to nothing more than the assertion that everyone must act from the same principle. Immanuel Kant made essentially the same assertion in his categorical imperative:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

Well, what if the person making that statement believes that his end is to be a slave-owner — and that he has the power to make me a slave?

The fact is that people, all too often, do not act according to Nozick’s or Kant’s imperatives. As Dr. Johnson said, I refute it thus: Look around you. Rights are a social construct. They exist only to the extent that they are reciprocally recognized and enforced. There are very good reasons that rights should be only negative ones (here and here, for example). But those reasons do not trump the realities of human nature (follow the links in the final paragraph of the introduction).

The concept of self-ownership, as with many ideals, arises from the ideal world of “ought” instead of the real world of “is.”

DESERT

Desert is a more infuriating concept than self-ownership. Self-ownership, at least, is an attribute which supposedly inheres in me by virtue of my humanity. (That it does not inhere in me can be seen readily by looking at my 1040, my real-estate tax bill, and the myriad federal, State, and local regulations that govern my behavior and transactions with others.) Desert, on the other hand, is mine only if someone else says that it does.

The Wikipedia article about desert gives this illustration:

In ordinary usage, to deserve is to earn or merit a reward; in philosophy, the distinction is drawn in the term desert to include the case that that which one receives as one’s just deserts may well be unwelcome, or a reward. For example, if one scratches off a winning lottery ticket, one may be entitled to the money, but one does not necessarily deserve it in the same way one would deserve $5 for mowing a lawn, or a round of applause for performing a solo.

Whether or not one “deserves” one’s lottery winnings depends arbitrarily on who is making the judgment. The arbitrariness is readily seen in the opposing views of Rawls and Nozick (from the same article):

One of the most controversial rejections of the concept of desert was made by the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls, writing in the mid to late twentieth century, claimed that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments (such as superior intelligence or athletic abilities), as it is purely the result of the ‘natural lottery’. Therefore, that person does not morally deserve the fruits of his or her talents and/or efforts, such as a good job or a high salary. However, Rawls was careful to explain that, even though he dismissed the concept of moral Desert, people can still legitimately expect to receive the benefits of their efforts and/or talents. The distinction here lies between Desert and, in Rawls’ own words, ‘Legitimate Expectations’.[1]

Rawls’[s] remarks about natural endowments provoked an often-referred response by Robert Nozick. Nozick claimed that to treat peoples’ natural talents as collective assets is to contradict the very basis of the deontological liberalism Rawls wishes to defend, i.e. respect for the individual and the distinction between persons.[2] Nozick argued that Rawls’ suggestion that not only natural talents but also virtues of character are undeserved aspects of ourselves for which we cannot take credit, “can succeed in blocking the introduction of a person’s autonomous choices and actions (and their results) only by attributing everything noteworthy about the person completely to certain sorts of ‘external’ factors. So denigrating a person’s autonomy and prime responsibility for his actions is a risky line to take for a theory that otherwise wishes to buttress the dignity and self-respect of autonomous beings.”[3]

Jonathan Pearce, writing at samizdata.net blog, sorts it out:

[T]he idea of “deserving” poor or “undeserving” rich is, in my view, loaded with ideological significance, depending on who is using the term. Clearly, people feel a lot more relaxed about handing out money – either from a charity or from a government department – to people who are down on their luck but of good character, than they are about handing it out to the feckless. Similarly, it follows that there is more support for taxing supposedly “undeserved” wealth than “earned” wealth. The trouble with such words, of course, as has been shown by FA Hayek in his famous demolition of payment-by-merit in The Constitution of Liberty, is who gets to decide whether our circumstances came about due to “desert” or not. Such a person would have to have the foresight of a god. It is, as Hayek argued, impossible to do this without some omnipotent authority being able to weigh up a person’s potential, and then being able to measure whether that person, in the face of a vast array of alternatives, made the most of that potential. (“Desert according to whom?“)

Rawls and his fellow travelers (who are usually found on the left) simply cannot stand the idea of individual differences, and so they attribute them to “luck.” The idea of luck, as I have said elsewhere, “is mainly an excuse and rarely an explanation. We prefer to apply ‘luck’ to outcomes when we don’t like the true explanations for them.” In the case of desert, the idea of luck is used as an excuse for redistribution, even though it is an inadequate explanation for variations in economic and social outcomes.

I am “lucky” because I was born with above-average intelligence. I did not earn it, it just happened to me. So what? I had to do something with it, right? And I did do something with it, but not as much as I could have, because I lacked the temperamental qualities required to pursue great wealth and political power. I chose, instead, to earn just enough to enable an early retirement, which is comfortable but far from lavish. I could just as easily have chosen to earn less than I did.

There are many, many, many individuals whose IQs are lower than mine but whose earnings far exceed mine, and whose abodes make mine look like a shack. Do I begrudge them their earnings and lavish living? Not a bit. Not even if they are dumb-as-doorknob Hollywood “liberals” whose idea of an intellectual conversation is to tell each other that Bush is a Nazi.

By the same token, there are a lot of individuals whose IQs are higher than mine, and I am willing to bet that some of them did not do as well financially as I did. So what? Should they have done better than me just because they have higher IQs? I Where is that rule is written? I will wager that there’s not a Democrat to be found who would subscribe to it.

Everyone deserves what they earn as long as they earn it without resorting to fraud, theft, or coercion. Members of Congress, by the way, resort to coercion when it comes to paying themselves. Yes, there is a constitutional provision that congressional raises can’t take effect until the next session of Congress, but incumbents are almost certain of re-election, and most incumbents run for re-election. The constitutional provision is mere window-dressing.

Back to the topic at hand. Tell me again why I am where I am because of luck. I had to do something with my genetic inheritance. I did what I wanted to do, which was not as much as I might have done. Others, less “lucky” than me did more with their genetic inheritance. And others, more “lucky” than me did less with their genetic inheritance.

Well, I could go on in the same vein about looks, athletic skills, skin color, parents’ wealth, family connections, and all the rest. But I think you get the picture. “Luck” is a starting point. Where we end up depends on what we do with our “luck”.

Not so fast, you say. What about family connections? Suppose Smedley Smythe’s father, who owns General Junk Foods Incorporated, makes Smedley the CEO of GJFI and pays him $1 million a year. If Smythe senior is the sole owner of the company, that is his prerogative. The million is coming out of his hide or, if consumers are willing to pay higher prices to defray the million, out of consumers’ pockets. But no one is forcing consumers to buy things from GJFI; if its prices are too high, consumers will turn elsewhere and Smythe senior will rue his nepotism. Suppose GJFI is a publicly owned company? In the end, it amounts to the same thing; if the nepotism hurts the bottom line, its shareholders should rebel. If it doesn’t, well…

Now what about those who are born poor, who are not especially bright, good looking, or athletic, and who are, say, black rather than white. Do they deserve what they earn? The hard, cold answer is “yes” — if what they earn is earned without benefit of fraud, theft, or coercion. Why should I want to pay you more because of the circumstances of your birth, your IQ, your looks, your athleticism, or your skin color. What matters is what you can do for me and how much I am willing to pay for it.

But what about individuals who are poor because they have been unable to “rise above” their genetic inheritance and family circumstances. What about individuals who are poor because they have incurred serious illnesses or have been severely injured? What about individuals who didn’t save enough to support themselves in their old age? And on and on.

Those seem like hard questions, but there is a straightforward answer to them. Such individuals may be helped legitimately, by private parties. As I say here,

Every bad thing that happens to an individual is a bad thing for that individual. Whether it is a thing that calls for action by another individual is for that other individual (or a group of them acting in concert) to decide on the basis of love, empathy, conscience, specific obligation, or rational calculation about the potential consequences of the bad thing and of helping or not helping the person to whom it has happened….

There is no universal social-welfare function. Therefore, it is up to the potential alms-giver to give or not, based on his knowledge and preferences. No third party is in a moral position to make that choice or to prescribe the criteria for making it. Governments have the power to force a choice other than the one that the potential alms-giver would make, but power is not morality.

Charity is a voluntary act that one commits without a sense of obligation; one helps one’s family, friends, neighbors, etc., out of love, affection, empathy, or other social bond. The fact that charity may strengthen a social bond and heighten the benefits flowing from it is an incidental fact, not a consideration. Duty, on the other hand, arises from specific obligations, formal or informal. These include the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, business partner to business partner, and the like. Charity can be mistaken for duty only in the mind of a philosopher for whom love, affection, and individuality are alien concepts.

What happens, instead, is that individuals — whether needy or not — are helped illegitimately through coercive government programs that draw on free-floating guilt, large measures of political opportunism and economic illiteracy, and coercive state action.

Except for criminals and “public servants,” we deserve what we inherit (or do not), what we earn (or do not), what comes to us by chance (or does not), and what is given to us voluntarily (or is not).

By what divine right do John Rawls and his followers make judgments about who is deserving and who is not? The “veil of ignorance” is a smokescreen for redistribution under the pretext of omniscience.

CONCLUSION

Self-ownership and desert belong in the pantheon of empty concepts, along with altruism.

Rawls Meets Bentham

Steven Landsburg writes:

Paul Krugman is at it again, casting aspersions on everyone who opposes extended unemployment benefits while offering absolutely no positive argument for those benefits. Let me explain what would count, to an economist, as a positive argument.

There’s no question that extending benefits would be good for the currently unemployed, and no question that it would be bad for those who are called on to foot the bill. Economists usually deal with that kind of conflict is by asking what policy you’d prefer if you had amnesia, and and didn’t know your own employment status…. The amnesiac is an impartial judge who is forced to care about everyone, because he/she might be anyone.

I have no wish to defend the indefensible Paul Krugman, but Landsburg’s attack is equally indefensible, combining — as it does — John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” and the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and his philosophical progeny. The “veil of ignorance,” according to Wikipedia, requires you to

imagine that societal roles were completely re-fashioned and redistributed, and that from behind your veil of ignorance you do not know what role you will be reassigned. Only then can you truly consider the morality of an issue.

This is just another way of pretending to omniscience. Try as you might to imagine your “self” away, you cannot do it. Your position about a moral issue will be your position, not that of someone else. Moreover, it will not truly be your position unless you put it into practice. Talk — like happiness research — is cheap.

Pretended omniscience is the essence of utilitarianism, which is captured in the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” or, more precisely “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” From this facile philosophy grew the patently ludicrous idea that it might be possible to quantify each person’s happiness, sum those values, and arrive at an aggregate measure of total happiness for everyone.

But there is no realistic worldview in which A’s greater happiness cancels B’s greater unhappiness; never the twain shall meet.  The only way to “know” that A’s happiness cancels B’s unhappiness is to put oneself in the place of an omniscient deity — to become, in other words, an accountant of the soul.

Landsburg, in the space of a single post, has put himself in company with “liberals” like Krugman, who arrogate to themselves the ability to judge the worthiness of others. A pox on both their houses.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Inventing “Liberalism”
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul