Jim Ryan at Philosoblog proposes two hypotheticals, in the form of phone calls. This is the first:

Joe: “Hello? Oh, Fred, hi. Yes, the mailman came, and it looked like he dropped mail at your house. Oh, by the way, your son, Bobby, is bleeding to death on your front lawn, after he severed his foot under the lawnmower. Actually, I think he’s dead…. What? No, I didn’t. I was busy with this crossword puzzle. I know we’re next-door neighbors and all, but I have no obligation to help other people. I’m free to live on my own and be selfish as long as I don’t hurt anybody…. Listen, Fred, you’re obviously too upset to think clearly about this, so I’m hanging up now. Bye.”

This is the second:

Joe: “No, he’s still alive, barely.”
Fred: “I have remote control of my burglar alarm next door. If I press the button, the alarm will sound. It is very, very loud and will fill your house with mind-numbing noise. I suggest that you call an ambulance for my son and administer simple first aid, or I will do this.”

According to Jim, the libertarian thinks Joe did nothing wrong in Hypo 1, but Fred did something wrong in Hypo 2. This is obviously absurd, therefore libertarianism is false.

Hypo 1 suggests that it is wrong to refuse to help someone in an emergency at little or no cost to oneself. I agree; so does every libertarian of my acquaintance. (So does Ayn Rand, for that matter; in “The Ethics of Emergencies” she calls people like Joe who would refuse to help “psychopaths.”) But the question is whether it ought to be against the law. Jim concedes in his comments on this article that enforcing Samaritanism by law is a bad idea. We agree, both morally and legally. Nothing here causes libertarians any difficulty.

Hypo 2 suggests that it is wrong to “force” someone to be a Samaritan. Joe has violated no one’s rights, even though he sits idly by as little Bobby bleeds to death; but Fred has violated Joe’s by setting off the burglar alarm.

And I guess he has, in the same sense that my neighbor violates my rights when he throws a loud party next door. Big deal. You cope with the party by asking the neighbors to turn the music down, first politely, then rudely; perhaps in a dire extremity you call the cops. But you don’t file a lawsuit, and the courts in a libertarian regime would dismiss it as frivolous if you did. People infringe on each other in these minor ways all the time, and it is a characteristic of anti-libertarians to legislate such matters, the way New York is doing with cigarette smoke. Libertarians believe these minor infringements can be negotiated amicably. In this sense they resemble ordinary sensible people.

If the alarm had gone off because Fred’s house was being burgled, would “libertarian” Joe squawk about his rights being violated? Not if he’s like any libertarian I know.

Jim says Fred did nothing wrong in Hypo 2, and I agree again. He committed a tort to which no moral opprobrium attaches. A more serious example: If a million children are vaccinated for measles, one can be expected to die from an unforeseen allergic reaction. The death is a tort, yet there was nothing immoral about vaccinating the child.

It is a common misconception that illegal acts are, or ought to be, a subset of immoral acts. In fact many acts that are properly illegal, like underage driving, are not immoral (provided you’re an adequate driver); and many acts that are immoral, like watching little Bobby bleed to death, are properly legal. Libertarianism is a legal position, and to dissect it we need to concentrate more on law and less on morality.

Aaron Haspel | Posted November 4, 2002 @ 11:37 AM | General

6 Responses to “Playing with Hypos”

  1. 1 1. Curtis Loftis


    I am not so sure everyone considers Libertarinism just a legal philosphy. Rand’s books read to me more like religious works on right and wrong than essays on legal theory.

    But surely you are right in it is wrong to try to legislate morality.

    As for liberatarinism itself, yes the government is woefully inefficient in some things, but would you want to take drugs in a world with no FDA or buy stocks with no SEC? I think not.

  2. 2 2. Jim

    But my posts argue that since Fred does nothing wrong, taxation for welfare programs is not wrong. I’m making a moral argument in support of a such a governmental program. (I’ve argued that good Samaritan laws are a bad idea for reasons that don’t apply in the case of tax/welfare.) Is this a point where you and I differ, Aaron? Is taxation for (austere) welfare wrong?

  3. 3 3. Aaron Haspel

    I am arguing that welfare cannot be justified by Hypo 2, or any similar argument, because what an individual ought to do and what the State ought to do are very different things. When you note that Samaritan laws are a bad idea you implicitly concede this point.

    That said, however, I also believe that taxation for welfare is wrong. The State has the monopoly on force, which goes a lot further than ringing loud alarms. If I don’t pay my taxes I go to jail, and if I try to escape from jail I get shot. Would you be so sanguine about Fred’s behavior in Hypo 2 if he had pointed a gun at Joe and said, "Help Bobby or I’ll kill you"?

  4. 4 4. Jim

    I agree with the inferences you make. I accept two different premises, though.

    "…implicitly concede this point." Yes, but in conjunction with the premise that tax/welfare programs are not unbearably inefficient in – expense/justice yielded ratio – as the enforcement of good Samaritan laws would be (but would be very efficient) Hypo 2 does support tax/welfare programs.

    I do think it would be right for Fred to say, "I’ve got telekinetic powers, Joe. I will kill you over the phone lines unless you save my son." Why not do that to a psychopath? My argument is that what Joe is doing is morally close enough to murder that deadly coercion is permissible. A society that allows children to starve on the streets is close enough to murderous to make its coercion legitimate. An axe murderer ought to be coerced. Someone, an extreme Christian pacifist, say, might be horrified that we would contemplate such coercion….

    Libertarians lump me in with lefty. The difference is that the leftist is coercing us without a just cause. It’s not always right to coerce duty, but when it’s a matter of crossword vs. child death, it is. Where is the basis for the view that one may coerce those who would actively injure others, but one may not coerce those who would wrongly and casually allow grave harm?

  5. 5 5. Aaron Haspel

    No argument of the form "A should behave in such-and-such a way toward B" can ever, by itself, prove that the State should or should not do a particular thing. You seem to agree in the comments here, adding "the premise that tax/welfare programs are not unbearably inefficient in expense/justice yielded ratio." Maybe yes, maybe no; but your original argument is phrased as though the two hypos would themselves suffice to refute libertarianism.

    I think it would be unjust for Fred to use his telekinetic powers to kill Joe. On that point we part company. But it is interesting that you maintain, on the one hand, that Fred can justly kill Joe for behavior that is, on the other hand, entirely legal, because we have agreed that Samaritanism ought not to be imposed by law. There is no necessary contradiction or logical fallacy in this position, but still it is rather odd, condoning, as it does, a sort of super-vigilantism, not merely against criminals the State has missed, but against people whom the State does not consider criminals at all. Do you think, if Fred does kill Joe, that the State ought to punish him? If so, on what grounds?

  6. 6 6. Jim

    On your first paragraph: Yes. So, now you have my whole argument, at last. But I guess you think that argument is unsound because you think Fred does wrong. Why do you think he does wrong?

    On your second: Fred is right to kill Joe (if he must form the intention to do so in order to make the threat credible). Odd, you say, but the state can’t undertake to enforce good Samaritan laws because it’s too cumbersome, little payoff, etc., whereas in an instance in which you _know_ that forcing someone to lend aid will easily promote justice in a particular case there is no such problem. Super-vigilantism? A father should make a child say he’s sorry at the playground. (Just like regular vigilantism: it’s okay to punish a person who you have just seen torture an innocent to death; this should be illegal because stupid people would screw it up, though.)

    On that note: I don’t know whether Fred should be punished, but I guess he should on the grounds that if he weren’t, stupid people would practice super-vigilantism, too, seeing that Fred was not punished for it. And they would hurt innocents whom they believe guilty. On the other hand, the first idiot trying super-vigilantism and screwing it up could be punished, putting an end to that problem. I don’t know the answer to this question.

Add a Comment

Basic HTML acceptable. Two-link limit per comment.