Monday, June 13, 2011

Callahan Finds His Inner Singer

...Peter Singer, that is.

If there were ever an instructive argument that outlined the foundation of positive rights, Peter Singer has what is probably the best approximation with his "drowning child" hypothetical. Over at Crash Landing, Gene Callahan alludes to this popular question, and contrasts what he feels should be done with what would/should happen under libertarianism to prove the silliness of the latter:

Let's say you are walking along the road on a cold winter night, on your way to an opera you very much want to see. Halfway there, you hear a cry. You look down, and there is a baby lying there, shivering in the cold. Otherwise, the road is deserted.

The baby needs medical care. The problem is that the hospital is in the opposite direction from the opera house. If you take the baby there, you will miss your opera and your ticket will be worthless.

Do you have an obligation to take the baby to the hospital?

There are two problems with this attack on libertarianism (from my point of view) - one is merely a partial issue, while the other I would consider a flagship rebuttal from the Rothbardian viewpoint.

The first issue is that I feel this is either a categorical mistake on the one hand, or begging the question on the other. The scope of the systems or constructs he's trying to compare are intrinsically different. Libertarianism, in the strictly political sense, is concerned with justice and the (property) rights that govern it. Therefore, much like a priest having nothing contextually important important to say regarding high-level theoretical mathematical axioms, so does libertarianism, in itself, have little to say outside of the realm of justice.

Of course, the clear way to refute such a claim is to say that libertarians are begging the question by assuming that being saved isn't a right. This brings me to my second issue. While I'll offer that, in order to claim ANY rights outside of property rights you must dismantle property rights altogether, I would probably do well to simply remind my detractor that he too, although appealing to cultural and moral sympathies, is begging the question. As long as we accept a clear difference between vice and harm, under the rubric of justice - legitimate force, then the line being drawn in categorization is precisely what's in question.

In any case, it's still seemingly true that property rights (the basis for negative liberty) and positive rights cannot, without contradiction, co-exist.

Let's take the "drowning child" problem for instance. The libertarian response is that, although in other spheres of human interaction we have every right to deride or disassociate with such a person who would let the child drown, we have no inherent "right"to either force him to save the child or to punish him for not doing so. Clearly we'd look upon such a person as immoral, amoral, or more generally just a "bad" person. After all, the point of the example is to bring emotion and moral sentiment to bear upon what might otherwise be a weak case for the establishment of arbitrary positive obligations. Nevertheless, of all the spheres within which an individual might persue his animus towards such a person, the libertarian keeps the blade of justice sheathed.

It does, indeed, sound quite grim.

But let's take a look at what we can draw from the opposite conclusion. Let's say that we all have a positive right to be saved. Well, we can go ahead and throw self-ownership and property rights in general out the window at that point - as clearly if there are stipulations and conditions to such rights, then they are not truly rights at all in any real sense, but rather individual privileges bestowed upon us by some exogenous authority.

If the prospect of single-handedly dispensing of any coherent sense of property rights with the introduction of positive rights doesn't give you pause, then extrapolate the drowning child analogy into its intended application through the polity. Analogies like these lead us to believe, in principle, that violations of property rights are justified in order to help those in need. Let's put aside the obvious consistency issues laid out and move into the practical. Where is the line?

If need is the genesis of rights and positive rights (as "rights" imply) are socially binding then when do we stop being guilty of injustice? It seems like such a principle would call us to give as long as one needs. But the world isn't a pond with a single drowning child. The world is a pond with hundreds of millions of "drowning children" and we are billions of passersby. As I type this, thousands upon thousands of people are dying from starvation and disease. I could be using this time, marginally, to save them. Am I guilty of injustice? Should I be punished? Should I be locked away in a cage?

And this is where things stop making sense.....

Faced with the insurmountable task of saving these countless children, and conceding my obligations nonetheless, how much of my wealth and assets must go to help said children? What of my time, my labor? This is precisely the problem with the "drowning child" argument - it has no constraining values. And, in fact, it would seem any such constraining values (in the realm of justice) would prove quickly inconsistent with this utilitarian sense of positive obligation.

While being hypocritical of one's beliefs certainly does not prove one's beliefs to be wrong, I can't help but observe the action (or inaction) of the proponents of positive rights as a social litmus test for the weakness of such a principle. Little to none live 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, in absolute poverty for the sake of their fellow man, yet they would compel the rest of the populace to live by their piecemeal attempts to legislate those very ideals. The world entailed by such a principle is apparently one which they feel is unfit for living in.

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