Tag Archives: Locke

What Can be Owned?

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One rather interesting philosophical question is that of what can, and perhaps more importantly cannot, be owned. There is, as one might imagine, considerable dispute over this matter. One major historical example of such a dispute is the debate over whether people can be owned. A more recent example is the debate over the ownership of genes. While each specific dispute needs to be addressed on its own merits, it is certainly worth considering the broader question of what can and what cannot be property.

Addressing this matter begins with the foundation of ownership—that is, what justifies the claim that one owns something, whatever that something might be. This is, of course, the philosophical problem of property. Many are not even aware there is such a philosophical problem—they uncritically accept the current system, though they might have some complaints about its particulars. But, to simply assume that the existing system of property is correct (or incorrect) is to beg the question. As such, the problem of property needs to be addressed without simply assuming it has been solved.

One practical solution to the problem of property is to contend that property is a matter of convention. This can be formalized convention (such as laws) or informal convention (such as traditions) or a combination of both. One reasonable view is property legalism—that ownership is defined by the law. On this view, whatever the law defines as property is property. Another reasonable view is that of property relativism—that ownership is defined by the cultural practices (which can include the laws). Roughly put, whatever the culture accepts as property is property. These approaches, obviously enough, correspond to the moral theories of legalism (that the law determines morality) and ethical relativism (that culture determines morality).

The conventionalist approach to property does seem to have the virtue of being practical and of avoiding mucking about in philosophical disputes. If there is a dispute about what (or who) can be owned, the matter is settled by the courts, by force of arms or by force of persuasion. There is no question of what view is right—winning makes the view right. While this approach does have its appeal, it is not without its problems.

Trying to solve the problem of property with the conventionalist approach does lead to a dilemma: the conventions are either based on some foundation or they are not. If the conventions are not based on a foundation other than force (of arms or persuasion), then they would seem to be utterly arbitrary. In such a case, the only reasons to accept such conventions would be practical—to avoid trouble with armed people (typically the police) or to gain in some manner.

If the conventions have some foundation, then the problem is determining what it (or they) might be. One easy and obvious approach is to argue that people have a moral obligation to obey the law or follow cultural conventions. While this would provide a basis for a moral obligation to accept the property conventions of a society, these conventions would still be arbitrary. Roughly put, those under the conventions would have a reason to accept whatever conventions were accepted, but no reason to accept one specific convention over another. This is analogous to the ethics of divine command theory, the view that what God commands is good because He commands it and what He forbids is evil because He forbids it. As should be expected, the “convention command” view of property suffers from problems analogous to those suffered by divine command theory, such as the arbitrariness of the commands and the lack of justification beyond obedience to authority.

One classic moral solution to the problem of property is that offered by utilitarianism. On this view, the practice of property that creates more positive value than negative value for the morally relevant beings would be the morally correct practice. It does make property a contingent matter—as the balance of positive against negative shifted, radically different conceptions of property can be thus justified. So, for example, while a capitalistic conception of property might be justified at a certain place and time, that might shift in favor of state ownership of the means of production. As always, utilitarianism leaves the door open for intuitively horrifying practices that manage to fulfill that condition. However, this approach also has an intuitive appeal in that the view of property that creates the greatest good would be the morally correct view of property.

One very interesting attempt to solve the problem of property is offered by John Locke. He begins with the view that God created everyone and gave everyone the earth in common. While God does own us, He is cool about it and effectively lets each person own themselves. As such, I own myself and you own yourself. From this, as Locke sees it, it follows that each of us owns our labor.

For Locke, property is created by mixing one’s labor with the common goods of the earth. To illustrate, suppose we are washed up on an island owned by no one. If I collect wood and make a shelter, I have mixed my labor with the wood that can be used by any of us, thus making the shelter my own. If you make a shelter with your labor, it is thus yours. On Locke’s view, it would be theft for me to take your shelter and theft for you to take mine.

As would be imagined, the labor theory of ownership quickly runs into problems, such as working out a proper account of mixing of labor and what to do when people are born on a planet on which everything is already claimed and owned. However, the idea that the foundation of property is that each person owns themselves is an intriguing one and does have some interesting implications about what can (and cannot) be owned. One implication would seem to be that people are owners and cannot be owned. For Locke, this would be because each person is owned by themselves and ownership of other things is conferred by mixing one’s labor with what is common to all.

It could be contended that people create other people by their labor literally in the case of the mother) and thus parents own their children. A counter to this is that although people do engage in sexual activity that results in the production of other people, this should not be considered labor in the sense required for ownership. After all, the parents just have sex and then the biological processes do all the work of constructing the new person. One might also play the metaphysical card and contend that what makes the person a person is not manufactured by the parents, but is something metaphysical like the soul or consciousness (for Locke, a person is their consciousness and the consciousness is within a soul).

Even if it is accepted that parents do not own their children, there is the obvious question about manufactured beings that are like people such as intelligent robots or biological constructs. These beings would be created by mixing labor with other property (or unowned materials) and thus would seem to be things that could be owned. Unless, of course, they are owners.

One approach is to consider them analogous to children—it is not how children are made that makes them unsuitable for ownership, it is what they are. On this view, people-like constructs would be owners rather than things to be owned. The intuitive counter is that people-like manufactured beings would be property like anything else that is manufactured. The challenge is, of course, to show that this would not entail that children are property—after all, considerable resources and work can be expended to create a child (such as IVF, surrogacy, and perhaps someday artificial wombs), yet intuitively they would not be property. This does point to a rather important question: is it what something is that makes it unsuitable to be owned or how it is created?


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Owning Asteroids

While asteroid mining is still just science fiction, companies such as Planetary Resources are already preparing to mine the sky. While space mining sounds awesome, lawyers are already hard at work murdering the awesomeness with legalize. President Obama recently signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act which seems to make asteroid mining legal. The key part of the law is that “Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them, which shall be entitled to all property rights to them, consistent with applicable federal law and existing international obligations.” More concisely, the law makes it so that asteroid mining by U.S. citizens would not violate U.S. law.

While this would seem to open up the legal doors to asteroid mining, there are still legal barriers. The various space treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, do not give states sovereign rights in space. As such, there is no legal foundation for a state conferring space property rights to its citizens on the basis of its sovereignty. However, the treaties do not forbid private ownership in space—as such, any other nation could pass a similar law that allows its citizens to own property in space without violating the laws of that nation.

One obvious concern is that if multiple nations pass such laws and citizens from these nations start mining asteroids, then there will be the very real possibility of conflict over valuable resources. In some ways this will be a repeat of the past: the more technological advanced nations engaged in a struggle to acquire resources in an area where they lack sovereignty. These past conflicts tended to escalate into actual wars, which is something that must be considered in the final frontier.

One way to try to avoid war over asteroid resources is to work out new treaties governing the use of space resources. This is, obviously enough, a matter that will be handled by space lawyers, governments, and corporations. Unless, of course, the automated killing machines resolve it first.

While the legal aspects of space ownership are interesting, the moral aspects of ownership in space are also of considerable concern. While it might be believed that property rights in space is something entirely new, this is clearly not the case. While the location is clearly different than in the original, the matter of space property matches the state of nature scenarios envisioned by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. To be specific, there is an abundance of resources and an absence of authority. As it now stands, while no one can hear you scream in space, there is also no one who can arrest you for space thievery.

Using the state of nature model, it can be claimed that there are currently no rightful owners of the asteroids or it could be claimed that we are all the rightful owners (the asteroids are the common property of all of humanity).

If there are currently no rightful owners, then it would seem that the asteroids are there for the taking: an asteroid belongs to whoever can take and hold it. This is on par with Hobbes’ state of nature—practical ownership is a matter of possession. As Hobbes saw it, everyone has the right to all things, but this is effectively a right to nothing—other than what a person can defend from others. As Hobbes noted, in such a scenario profit is the measure of right and who is right is to be settled by the sword.

While this is practical, brutal and realistic, it does seem a bit morally problematic in that it would, as Hobbes also noted, lead to war. His solution, which would presumably work as well in space as on earth, would be to have sovereignty in space. This would shift the war of all against all in space (of the sort that is common in science fiction about asteroid mining) to a war of nations in space (which is also common in science fiction). The war could, of course, be a cold one fought economically and technologically rather than a hot one fought with mass drivers and lasers.

If the asteroids are regarded as the common property of humanity, then Locke’s approach could be taken. As Locke saw it, God gave everything to humans in common, but people have to acquire things from the common property to make use of it. Locke gives the terrestrial example of how a person needs to make an apple her own before she can benefit from it. In the case of space, a person would need to make an asteroid her own in order to benefit from the materials it contains.

Locke sketched out a basic labor theory of ownership—whatever a person mixes her labor with becomes her property. As such, if asteroid miners located an asteroid and started mining it, then the asteroid would belong to them.  This does have some appeal: before the miners start extracting the minerals from the asteroid, it is just a rock drifting in space. Now it is a productive mine, improved from is natural state by the labor of the miners. If mining is profitable, then the miners would have a clear incentive to grab as many asteroids as they can, which leads to a rather important moral problem—the limits of ownership.

Locke does set limits on what people can take in his proviso.: those who take from the common resources must leave as much and as good for others. When describing this to my students, I always use the analogy to food at a party: since the food is for everyone, everyone has a right to the food. However, taking it all or taking the very best would be wrong (and rude). While this proviso is ignored on earth, the asteroids provide us with a fresh start in regards to dividing up the common property of humanity. After all, no one has any special right to claim the asteroids—so we all have equal good claims to the resources they contain.

As with earth resources, some will probably contend that there is no obligation to leave as much and as good for others in space. Instead, those who get there first will contend that ownership should be on the principle of whoever grabs it first and can keep it is the “rightful” owner.

Those who take this view would probably argue that those who get their equipment into space would have done the work (or put up the money) and hence (as argued above) would be entitled to all they can grab and use or sell. Other people are free to grab what they can, provided that they have access to the resources needed to mine the asteroids. Naturally, the folks who lack the resources to compete will remain poor—their poverty will, in fact, disqualify them from owning any of the space resources much in the way poverty disqualifies people on earth from owning earth resources.

While the selfish approach is certainly appealing, arguments can be made for sharing asteroid resources. One reason is that those who will mine the asteroids did not create the means to do so from nothing on their own. Reaching the asteroids will be the result of centuries of human civilization that made such technology possible. As such, there would seem to be a general debt owed to human civilization and paying this off would involve also contributing to the general good of humanity. Naturally, this line of reasoning can be countered by arguing that the successful miners will benefit humanity when their profits “trickle down” from space.

Another way to argue for sharing the resources is to use an analogy to a buffet line. Suppose I am first in line at a buffet. This does not give me the right to devour everything I can with no regard for the people behind me. It also does not give me the right to grab whatever I cannot eat myself in order to sell it to those who had the misfortune to be behind me in line. As such, these resources should be treated in a similar manner, namely fairly and with some concern for those who are behind the first people in line.

Naturally, these arguments for sharing can be countered by the usual arguments in favor of selfishness. While it is tempting to think that the vastness of space will overcome selfishness (that is, there will be so much that people will realize that not sharing would be absurd and petty), this seems unlikely—the more there is, the greater the disparity between those who have and those who have not. On this pessimistic view we already have all the moral and legal tools we need for space—it is just a matter of changing the wording a bit to include “space.”



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Skepticism, Locke & Games

In philosophy skepticism is the view that we lack knowledge. There are numerous varieties of skepticism and these are defined by the extent of the doubt endorsed by the skeptic. A relatively mild case of skepticism might involve doubts about metaphysical claims while a truly rabid skeptic would doubt everything—including her own existence.

While many philosophers have attempted to defeat the dragon of skepticism, all of these attempts seem to have failed. This is hardly surprising—skepticism seems to be unbreakable. The arguments for this have an ancient pedigree and can be distilled down to two simple arguments.

The first goes after the possibility of justifying a belief and thus attacks the standard view that knowledge requires a belief that is true and justified. If a standard of justification is presented, then there is the question of what justifies that standard. If a justification is offered, then the same question can be raised into infinity. And beyond. If no justification is offered, then there is no reason to accept the standard.

A second stock argument for skepticism is that any reasonable argument given in support of knowledge can be countered by an equally reasonable argument against knowledge.  Some folks, such as the famous philosopher Chisholm, have contended that it is completely fair to assume that we do have knowledge and begin epistemology from that point. However, this seems to have all the merit of grabbing the first place trophy without actually competing.

Like all sane philosophers, I tend to follow David Hume in my everyday life: my skepticism is nowhere to be seen when I am filling out my taxes, sitting in brain numbing committee meeting, or having a tooth drilled. However, like a useless friend, it shows up again when it is no longer needed. As such, it would be nice if skepticism could be defeated or a least rendered irrelevant.

John Locke took a rather interesting approach to skepticism. While, like Descartes, he seemed to want to find certainty, he settled for a practical approach to the matter. After acknowledging that our faculties cannot provide certainty, he asserted that what matters to us is the ability of our faculties to aid us in our preservation and wellbeing.

Jokingly, he challenges “the dreamer” to put his hand into a furnace—this would, he claims, wake him “to a certainty greater than he could wish.” More seriously, Locke contends that our concern is not with achieving epistemic certainty. Rather, what matters is our happiness and misery. While Locke can be accused of taking an easy out rather than engaging the skeptic in a battle of certainty or death, his approach is certainly appealing. Since I happened to think through this essay while running with an injured back, I will use that to illustrate my view on this matter.

When I set out to run, my back began hurting immediately. While I could not be certain that I had a body containing a spine and nerves, no amount of skeptical doubt could make the pain go away—in regards to the pain, it did not matter whether I really had a back or not. That is, in terms of the pain it did not matter whether I was a pained brain in a vat or a pained brain in a runner on the road. In either scenario, I would be in pain and that is what really mattered to me.

As I ran, it seemed that I was covering distance in a three-dimensional world. Since I live in Florida (or what seems to be Florida) I was soon feeling quite warm and had that Florida feel of sticky sweat. I could eventually feel my thirst and some fatigue. Once more, it did not seem to really matter if this was real—whether I was really bathed in sweat or a brain bathed in some sort of nutrient fluid, the run was the same to me. As I ran, I took pains to avoid cars, trees and debris. While I did not know if they were real, I have experience what it is like to be hit by a car (or as if I was hit by a car) and also experience involving falling (or the appearance of falling). In terms of navigating through my run, it did not matter at all whether it was real or not. If I knew for sure that my run was really real for real that would not change the run. If I somehow knew it was all an illusion that I could never escape, I would still run for the sake of the experience of running.

This, of course, might seem a bit odd. After all, when the hero of a story or movie finds out that she is in a virtual reality what usually follows is disillusionment and despair. However, my attitude has been shaped by years of gaming—both tabletop (BattleTech, Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, and so many more) and video (Zork, Doom, Starcraft, Warcraft, Destiny, Halo, and many more). When I am pretending to be a paladin, the Master Chief, or a Guardian, I know I am doing something that is not really real for real. However, the game can be pleasant and enjoyable or unpleasant and awful. This enjoyment or suffering is just as real as enjoyment or suffering caused by what is supposed to be really real for real—though I believe it is but a game.

If I somehow knew that I was trapped in an inescapable virtual reality, then I would simply keep playing the game—that is what I do. Plus, it would get boring and awful if I stopped playing. If I somehow knew that I was in the really real world for real, I would keep doing what I am doing. Since I might be trapped in just such a virtual reality or I might not, the sensible thing to do is keep playing as if it is really real for real. After all, that is the most sensible option in every case. As such, the reality or lack thereof of the world I think I occupy does not matter at all. The play, as they say, is the thing.


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Information Immortality

Most people are familiar with the notion that energy cannot be destroyed. Interestingly, there is also a rule in quantum mechanics that forbids the destruction of information. This principle, called unitarity, is often illustrated by the example of burning a book: though the book is burned, the information still remain—

although it would obviously be much harder to “read” a burned book. This principle has, in recent years, run into some trouble with black holes and they might or might not be able to destroy information. My interest here is not with this specific dispute, but rather with the question of whether or not the indestructibility of information has any implications for immortality.

On the face of it, the indestructibility of information seems rather similar to the conservation of energy. Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I first heard the argument that because of the conservation of energy, personal immortality must be real (or at least possible). The basic line of reasoning was that a person is energy, energy cannot be destroyed, so a person will exist forever. While this has considerable appeal, the problem is obvious: while energy is conserved, it certainly need not be preserved in the same form. That is, even if a person is composed of energy it does not follow that the energy remains the same person (or even a person). David Hume was rather clear about the problem—an indestructible or immortal substance (or energy) does not entail the immortality of a person. When discussing the possibility of immortality, he claims that nature uses substance like clay: shaping it into various forms, then reshaping the matter into new forms so that the same matter can successively make up the bodies of living creatures.  By analogy, an immaterial substance could successively make up the minds of living creatures—the substance would not be created or destroyed, it would merely change form. However, the person would cease to be.

Prior to Hume, John Locke also noted the same sort of problem: even if, for example, you had the same soul (or energy) as Nestor, you would not be the same person as Nestor any more than you would be the same person as Nestor if, in an amazing coincidence, your body contained at this instant all the atoms that composed Nestor at a specific instant in time.

Hume and Locke certainly seem to be right about this—the indestructibility of the stuff that makes up a person (be it body or soul) does not entail the immortality of the person. If a person is eaten by a bear, the matter and energy that composed him will continue to exist—but the person did not survive being eaten by the bear. If there is a soul, the mere continuance of the soul would also not seem to suffice for the person to continue to exist as the same person (although this can obviously be argued). What would be needed would be the persistence of what makes up the person. This is usually taken to be something other than just stuff, be that stuff matter, energy, or ectoplasm. So, the conservation of energy does not seem to entail personal immortality—but the conservation of information might (or might not).

Put a bit crudely, Locke took this something other to be memory: personal identity extends backwards as far as the memory extends. Since people clearly forget things, Locke did accept the possibility of memory loss. Being consistent in this matter, he accepted that the permanent loss of memory would result in a corresponding failure of identity. Crudely put, if a person truly did not and could never remember doing something, then she was not the person who did it.

While there are many problems with the memory account of personal identity, it certainly suggests a path to quantum immortality through the conservation of information. One approach would be to argue that since information is conserved, the person is conserved even after the death and dissolution of the body. Just like the burned book whose information still exists, the person’s information would still exist.

One obvious reply to this is that a person is an active being and not just a collection of information. To use a rather rough analogy, a person could be seen as being like a computer program—to be is to be running. Or, to use a more artistic analogy, like a play: while the script would persist after the final curtain, the play itself is over. As such, while the person’s information would be conserved, the person would cease to be. This sort of “quantum immortality” is remarkably similar to Spinoza’s view of immortality. While he denied personal immortality, he claimed that “the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal.” Spinoza, of course, seemed to believe that this should comfort people. Perhaps some comfort should be taken in the fact that one’s information will be conserved (barring an unfortunate encounter with a black hole).

However, people would probably be more comforted by a reason to believe in an afterlife. Fortunately, the conservation of information does provide at least a shot at an afterlife. If information is conserved and all there is to a person can be conserved as information, then a person could presumably be reconstructed after his death. For example, imagine a person, Laz, who died by an accident and was buried. The remains could, in theory, be dug up and the information about the body could be recovered (to a point prior to death, of course). The body could, with suitably advanced technology, be reconstructed. The reconstructed brain could, in theory, have all the memories and such recovered and restored as well. This would be a technological resurrection in the flesh and the person would certainly seem to live again. Assuming that every piece of information was preserved, recovered and restored in the flesh it would be the person—just as if a moment had passed rather than, say, a thousand years. This would be, obviously, in theory. Actual resurrection technology would presumably involve various flaws and limitations. But, the idea seems sound enough.

One potential problem is an old one for philosophers—if a person could be reconstructed from such information, she could also be duplicated from such information. To use the obvious analogy, this would be like 3D printing from a data file, except what would be printed would be a person. Or, to use another analogy, it would be like reconstructing an old computer and reloading all the software. There would certainly not be any reason to wait until the person died, unless there was some sort of copyright or patent held by the person on herself that expired a certain time after her death.

In closing, I leave you with this: some day in the far future, you might find that you (or someone like you) have just been reprinted. In 3D, of course.

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Is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?


Hello (Photo credit: ZORIN DENU)

In the course of discussing guns control, gun rights and related issues my friend Doug raised the question “is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?” Since this is an interesting question, it seems worthwhile to attempt to address it.

Before the question itself can be addressed, a working definition of tyranny is required. A rather extreme view of the matter is put forth by the philosophical anarchists, such as Goldman. In general, anarchists of this sort regard all government as tyranny. As such, this sort of anarchist would consider a denial of gun rights by the state as tyranny. Thus, the question is easily answered by those who accept anarchism of this sort.  However, accepting this sort of anarchism would require rejecting that the state has any legitimate role to play, which seems to be a rather implausible view. Fortunately there are other accounts of tyranny.

A rather reasonable account is put forth by John Locke in his writings on government.  He defines tyranny as “the exercise of power beyond right, which none have a right to” and this involves an official “using power, not for the good of those under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” Locke also adds that “where law ends, tyranny begins, if the law is transgressed to another’s harm.” This view can be disputed, but I will assume it for the sake of the discussion that follows.

Turning now to the matter of gun rights, I am inclined to take the view that gun rights (if there are such things) would fall under the more general right of self-defense (if there is such a right). As with any talk of rights, one useful way to address the matter is to make use of the classic approach of considering rights in the state of nature (a possibly hypothetical state in which there is no government).

Thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke argue that people have the right to self-defense in the state of nature. Hobbes even goes as far as to contend that a person is obligated to preserve herself. He notes that without a right to the means of self-preservation, the right to engage in self-defense would be useless. Because of this, he contends that in his version of the state of nature everyone has a right to all things. So, on Hobbes’ view, if guns were around in the state of nature, everyone would have the right to be armed (and anyone with any sense would be armed). Attempting to deprive someone of her gun in the state of nature would not be tyrannical or even unjust—after all for Hobbes there is no justice until the state of nature has been replaced with civil society. In the state of nature depriving others of their guns would generally be the sensible thing to do—and something that would presumably result in numerous fatal shootouts.

While Locke presents a much nicer state of nature (complete with rights to life, liberty and property) he does allow for the use of violence and force against wrongdoers. On his view, people would presumably have the right to be armed in the state of nature. After all, he argues that the rights need to be enforced by what amounts to vigilante justice and hence if guns existed, then people would need them to defend themselves and others against the people who would violate rights. Since there are no police in the state of nature, everyone would need to be armed—or risk being an easy victim.

While Locke and Hobbes take rather different views of the state, they both argue that when the transition is made from the state of nature to the state of civil society each person gives up her individual right to act as a vigilante, judge, and executioner. This would then place a limit on gun rights (on the assumption people had guns in such a state).

In Hobbes’ case, the sovereign sets the laws and enforces them by the use of force. While the individual retains the right of self-preservation, all other rights are set by the Hobbesian sovereign. Thus, on Hobbes’ view the denial of gun rights would be just, provided that the state was able to enforce its laws. Naturally, if the sovereign were to be gunned down and replaced by a new sovereign that supported individual gun rights, then that would be right—at least until the next sovereign took over.

In Locke’s case, people set aside the role of vigilante in order to create a society with a legal system. As such, people would lose the gun rights that allowed them to dispense justice from the barrel of their own guns. However, Locke explicitly addresses the matter of self-defense. As Locke seems to see it, if someone is threatened and the agents of the state are not available to act in her defense, then she and the person threatening her are effective returned to a state of nature and potentially a state of war. In this state, the person’s right to act as the enforcer of the rights to life, liberty and property return in full. Given that this right is retained even in civil society, it would seem to follow that on a Locke style system that restricting gun rights would impose on this right of self-defense and this could qualify as tyranny. After all, an official would not seem to have the right to deny a person the means to self-defense.

Of course, the obvious counter is that Locke sees the main purpose of government as serving the good of the people. More specifically, this involves protecting life, liberty and property. Given this, it would seem that some limitations on the right of self-defense could easily be justified in terms of protecting the life and property of others. To use a somewhat silly example, this could be justly used to deny people the right to possess weapons capable of doing significant accidental (and intentional) property damage (like grenades, rocket launchers, cannons and bombers). To use  less silly example, it would also seem to allow the denial of rights to weapons when doing so would do more to protect people from harm (that is, protect the right to life) than would allowing people to possess such weapons. This could be used to justify the denial of the right to simply walk into a store and buy an automatic weapon. This would, of course, need to take into account the legitimate right of self-defense. As such, Locke’s view would seem to protect self-defense rights (and presumably gun rights), provided that those rights did not create a threat to the right to life. As such, the state could impose on certain rights (such as the rights to have certain weapons) in a way that would not be tyrannical—that is, acting within the legitimate functions of the state.

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How Much is the State?


The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thom...

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous essay I began a discussion about the question “to what extent do people owe their success (and failures) to others?” As might be imagined, the category of others is rather broad, so as a practical matter it is necessary to limit the scope of the discussion. In this essay I will focus on how much a person’s success (or failure) is owed to the state. Obviously, the exact debt will vary from person to person and this examination will be, of necessity, somewhat abstract.

One rather promising way to begin the discussion is to make use of the state of nature. This classic philosophical device was used by such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau in their examination of such matters as rights and the justification of political power. I am, however, going to use the device to see what the state contributes to success (or failure).

While this oversimplifies things quite a bit, two of the classic approaches to the state of nature are the Hobbesian state and the Lockean state. In general terms, the state of nature is a state in which there is no governmental authority. It is often presented as a hypothetical predecessor to the rise of political states. In any case, the state of nature is marked by the lack of any artificial authority.

For Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of war “and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of the conditions of this state, none of the following are possible: “Industry, culture of the earth, navigation, use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, commodious building; instruments of moving and removing, such things as require much force, knowledge of the face of the earth, account of time, arts, letters, society.” As Hobbes sees it, the establishment of the sovereign (the state) is necessary for the establishment of order and this allows the possibility of industry and the other things that are required for “commodious living.” Given Hobbes assumptions about the state of nature being a state of war of all against all, the idea that these things would not be possible makes sense. One has but to look at what happens in cases where civil authority collapses to see the plausibility of Hobbes’ view.

On the Hobbesian model, an individual who succeeded in industry or other endeavors would owe a great deal to the state (that is, the collective of everyone forming the great leviathan that is the state). After all, without the order provided by the state, success in these areas would not be possible. Naturally, this does not include any other contributions made by the state, such as providing infrastructure or support for research. These contributions would, obviously enough, add to the debt owed by the individual to the collective society.

The Lockean model is rather nicer than the Hobbesian, most likely because Locke includes divinely based rights to life, liberty and property even in the state of nature. On Locke’s model, life in the state if nature is not a state of war (although war can occur) and there is clearly the possibility of success within this state. For example, the right to property allows for the accumulation of goods and this could be seen as success.

While the Lockean state of nature is more appealing than Hobbes’ state of war, Locke does argue that it is not preferable to the state of civil society. While there are, according to Locke, rights in the state of nature, these rights are enforced only by vigilante justice in which individuals act (or not) to prevent and take revenge for misdeeds. As such, wrongs are not reliably prevented or corrected. If, for example, someone stole the goods a person had accumulated, it would be up to her (and any allies) to recover her goods and punish the malefactors.

To solve this and other problems, civil society is created and vigilante justice is replaced with a legal system. Once the state is established, then the state has the responsibility of protecting the citizens and dealing with criminals. Assuming the state is doing its job, the state of civil society provides a stable system in which success is both more possible and more secure.

If Locke’s view is correct, a successful individual owes less to the state (that is, the collective agreements and actions of the people) than she would if Hobbes were right. After all, the difference between Locke’s state of nature and civil society is not as extreme as the difference in Hobbes. However, the successful individual would still owe much to the collective efforts of civil society, not the least of which would be a debt for the existence of laws enabling and protecting the fruits of her success. If additional contributions of civil society, such as infrastructure, public education and so on are included, then the successful individual would owe a great deal to the state.

Of course, not everyone sees the state in such a positive way. For example, the communists contend that while the state is necessary for capitalism and socialism, it will wither away as true communism is achieved. Before then it will be an instrument of oppression, either serving the capitalists or the socialists. Obviously, once communism is achieved, then people will not owe any of their success (or failure) to the state on the obvious basis that there will be no state. Or so the communists claim. However, a debt will be still owed to the states—without them, humanity would not have been able to achieve communism.

As another example, the anarchists have a uniformly negative view of the state—although the degree of their negativity varies. Some, like Thoreau, are willing to co-exist with benign states. Others, like Goldman, advocate the destruction of the state because of its role in oppression and how it prevents true human flourishing.

Thoreau presents a rather interesting view of the state and one that many current conservatives would heartily endorse, noting “that government is best which governs least” and even going so far as to say “that government is best which governs not at all.” As Thoreau sees it, government seems to interfere with success in two main ways. The first is that people use it to impose on each other for their advantage. While this aids the success of those who control the state, it impedes the success of those who are imposed upon. Second, he claims that the state gets in the way of success, noting that “trade and commerce continuously face obstacles placed by legislators.” As he sees it government has only one role in success, namely doing nothing. As he sees it, “government never furthered any enterprise except by getting out of its way.”

On Thoreau’s system of government non-involvement, it would seem that an individual’s success (and failures) would depend more on the individual than it does in the current system in the United States and similar countries. After all, the state is routinely used by some to their considerable advantage over others (subsidies, favorable laws and so on) and it also imposes restrictions on what people can do. As such, the state does make contributions to the success (and failure) via these guided impositions and restrictions.

Thoreau advocates an evolution rather than a destruction of the state, however there are those (such as Goldman) who do advocate the complete elimination of the state. This would, of course, take the discussion full circle by returning to the state of nature—a situation without political authority. Naturally, if there was no state, then there would be no state to contribute to or prevent an individual’s success. There is, however, the question of whether or not such a state would be desirable. There is also the question of whether or not success would even be possible without a state, unless success is merely a matter of staying alive.

Obviously, there are other alleged contributors to individual success than the state and some of these will be addressed in the essays that follow.

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God’s Vigilantes

The Vigilantes seal from the cover of Fifes an...

In anticipation of teaching my Modern philosophy class in the upcoming spring semester, I have been perusing my notes. Since I recently did a post on God and punishment, re-reading Locke got me thinking about this matter once again.

Locke, like other political thinkers of his age, made use of the state of nature in his consideration of rights and authority. Roughly put, the state of nature is a situation in which there is no political authority: no politicians, no police, no judges, no man-made laws and so on. In short, there is no artificial society-just people existing in a natural state.

Thomas Hobbes also envisioned such a state, but he saw this as  a state of perpetual war. Since many of my students play video games, I always illustrate Hobbes as presenting a “death match” view of the state of nature: everyone against everyone, whatever you can grab is yours (until someone kills you and takes it), and so forth.  Locke, however, envisioned a nicer state in which people possessed natural rights to life, liberty and property.

Locke also contended that there is a law of nature that should be observed and that this law “wills the peace and preservation of all mankind.” Locke also noted the obvious: if there is no one to execute or enforce the law of nature, this law would be in vain.

To solve this problem, Locke claimed that in the state of nature everyone has the right to execute the law of nature by punishing wrongdoers who violate the right to life, liberty or property.  Locke, of course, grounds these rights on God. Our right to life rests on his view that we are God’s property and our right to property rests, in part, on God’s gift of the world to us. Put a bit simply, God is the legislator of the law of nature and the author of our rights. However, given what Locke claims, God respects the distinction between the executive and the legislative in that He does not enforce the law of nature nor does He act to prevent or punish (on earth) the violation of rights. He does not even dispatch angels to act as divine police. As such, on Locke’s view the state of nature is governed by divine law but God does deploy any enforcers.

In human societies when laws exist but there are no official enforcers, people sometimes turn to vigilantism. That is, people take the law into their own hands. In human societies, this practice is generally frowned upon-at least when law enforcement does exist. It is, as might be imagined, tolerated more (or even encouraged) when official law enforcement is lacking.

Given that in the state of nature there is law (the law of nature) but no official enforcers, what Locke is arguing for is vigilantism. In short, he calls upon people to serve as God’s vigilantes. Naturally, it might be wondered why God would need vigilantes rather than having official law enforcement in operation. After all, God surely cannot lack the funding or personnel to provide adequate policing. Given that He supposedly created the universe and all its contents, surely He could create a divine police force to supervise us here on earth. This force would not, of course, impede our free will anymore than our own police forces do: people are always free to chose to do wrong-they just get punished if they get caught and convicted.

As far as the view that God does not punish and hence does not need police , given what most faiths claim, God has no compunction against punishing people. He just seems rather reluctant to do so when people are watching.

It might be argued that God has deployed a police force, namely us. We are, of course, also the criminal element and the judges as well. However, this seems a rather odd way of doing things. Consider the following analogy: imagine a federation or empire with unlimited resources that is engaged in colonization. The way it colonizes is that it just dumps people on a habitable world, but provides them with no technology, no police, no education and so on. While this would make some sense for a poor empire that cannot afford proper colonization efforts, this would seem absurd for such a wealthy empire.

In the case of God, it seems absurd that He would just dump us on a planet and have us “go to it” on our own with no support or police.  This hypothesis seems, on might suspect, more absurd than the hypothesis that humans are the result of a seriously lame (or badly failed) colonization attempt by a space empire. After all, to say that we are ruled over by a God who makes rules, but provides no police or judges here on earth seems rather like saying that we are ruled over by a space empire that laid down our laws, but provides no police, judges or any contact with us.

This analogy also provides the obvious response to the claim that God punishes people in the afterlife. Imagine if someone claimed that we are part of a space empire and that just before people appear to die they are whisked away by transporters and their bodies replaced with duplicates. The supposedly dead people are then brought to the Court of the Space Empire and then tried by Space Lawyers before the Space Judges. If they are found guilty of crimes, they are cast into Space Hell to be punished. If they are found to be innocent, they are transported to Space Heaven and rewarded. Naturally, we are all really immortal-we just seem to die when we are transported away and replaced by a fake corpse (or ashes or whatever).

Just as we have every reason to think that the space empire story is just bad science fiction, it would seem that we should think that the story about God is just a bad fantasy story.

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