Ethical Intuitionism: A Philosophical Breakthrough?

I like to think I’m fairly well informed about what’s going on in libertarian circles. However, prior to PorcFest earlier this year I had never heard of Michael Huemer, philosopher at the University of Colorado and author of the book The Problem of Political Authority. I suppose I’m not that late to the party, the book was only published late last year. Yet, of all the speakers at PorcFest, Huemer captivated my attention the most. Partially because he was speaking about concepts that I have been pondering myself at of late, yet he presented them in a much more complete package.

To get a sample of Huemer’s style check out his Ted talk on irrationality in politics or his PorcFest talk on the psychology of authority.

The Problem of Politcal Authority

Upon returning home, I downloaded The Problem of Political Authority and I have to say, it very well may be the best philosophy book I’ve ever read. What sets Huemer’s philosophy apart from all others is he doesn’t attempt to present a comprehensive moral theory like, say, Kantian deontology, Eudaimonism, Rawlsianism, etc. It’s not so much a rejection of the possibility that there could be a correct general moral theory, but Huemer is skeptical that philosophers will ever arrive at one. Now there’s something to this notion. If you stop and think about it, philosophers have been doing their thing for thousands of years and yet the none have been able to produce a satisfactory moral theory. Almost all philosophical systems have their problems, inconsistencies, and complications. If you surveyed the general public or even just philosophy departments you would get a wide range of moral theories. For every adherent to a particular theory you will find multiple others who find it thoroughly unsatisfying. Neither are libertarians exempt from this problem. Much of the infighting among libertarians stems from disagreements over philosophical foundations.

Huemer takes a radically different approach. He begins his reasoning by accepting that there is a common set of moral beliefs that are held by almost everyone. Then he shows that governments continually act in ways that almost everyone would deem immoral if the same acts were performed by individuals. The problem of political authority is this asymmetry between what is immoral for individuals and moral for government. He spends a good chunk of the book charitably considering various theories that exist to justify political authority and finds them all lacking. Having shown that there is no such thing as political authority he ultimately derives the political system of anarcho-capitalism.

There is a sense in which Huemer is in a long line of libertarian philosophers who attempt to use logic and reason in deriving ethical premises and deducing the political conclusions of them.  Murray Rothbard, for example, used reductio ad absurdum to assert the principle of self-ownership and defend his natural rights version of libertarianism. While I personally find this line of reasoning compelling as far as self-ownership goes, most philosophers have not been able to make the leap from self-ownership to ownership of external objects and the implications that (may or may not) follow. One of the primary objections is that the logical implication of self-ownership is that children do not have rights vis-à-vis their parents (among other problems). Personally, I think it is possible to derive a reasonable position on child rights from self-ownership (maybe I’ll elaborate in a blog post sometime), but alas we would just end up in a debate about whether my conclusions really do flow from the premises, which leads us back to the original problems surrounding comprehensive moral theory.

In a similar vein Hans-Hermann Hoppe used performative contradiction to provide an a-priori justification for natural rights libertarianism. Rothbard even remarked that “Hans Hoppe has managed to establish the case for anarchocapitalist, Lockean rights in an unprecedentedly hard-core manner, one that makes my own natural-law/natural-rights position seem almost wimpy in comparison.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to me that Hoppe’s argumentation ethic holds up under tough scrutiny. I think Roderick Long’s critique is on the money. Hoppe’s conclusions certainly flow from the premises, but the premises themselves are a bit suspect.

All this shouldn’t be taken to suggest that Huemer is defending some sort of natural rights position. I’m merely suggesting that his use of logic in the derivation of his philosophy is reminiscent of these other approaches. I would like to add that Huemer’s reasoning is impeccable. As far as I can tell the book is completely devoid of logical fallacies. He even goes out of his way to evaluate all possible alternatives before moving on. Not surprisingly, philosophers who are uncomfortable with the book’s political conclusions, yet unable to to find any flaws in Huemer’s reasoning, have taken to attacking his methodology.

In this Cato-Unbound article, in typical devastating fashion, Huemer lays out a list of possible starting points:

1. It is better to start from normative premises that seem obviously right to almost everyone.

2. It is better to start from normative premises that seem doubtful or false, rather than ones that seem obviously correct.

3. It is better to start from normative premises that seem true only to some smaller number of people, such as perhaps the partisans of a particular ideology, rather than premises that seem true to almost everyone.

4. We may only use normative premises that seemed true to almost everyone throughout history, or across all human cultures.

5. We may only use normative premises that seem true to absolutely everyone.

6. We should start from no normative premises at all.

Right off the bat we can toss out options (2) and (3) which are obviously false. Incidentally, I’m sure it’s probably taboo to say this, but in my opinion most practitioners of political philosophy start from option (3). Options (4) and (5) are so narrow that they ultimately collapse into option (6). And option (6) essentially accepts moral skepticism and rejects all social and political philosophy. That isn’t to say option (6) is self-refuting, but for those of us who accept that the legitimacy of political philosophy, we are only left with option (1), Huemer’s starting point.

Now I’m at a loss to see how any proponent of any other methodology could wiggle out of the corner Huemer has boxed them into. Once you accept premise number one, you are almost automatically committed to accepting the conclusions that flow from it.

One of these conclusions is that the burden of proof is ultimately on those who want to violate those normative premises to provide a strong enough reason to do so. This is more or less the direction I was heading with my own personal thought. I’ve told people previously that I believe there is a defeasible presumption of non-violence in our social relations. Defeasible in the sense that the presumption can be overridden with a compelling enough reason. Notice this is practically the opposite approach of all non-libertarians who make government coercion the default position. Unless we libertarians can provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt that liberty would produce better outcomes than government coercion, we default back to coercion. Huemer’s approach suggests this is wrong and that voluntary social relations should be the default position. Unless someone can provide a strong enough reason to override this presumption, then we default back to ordinary moral principles.

This approach has value since it doesn’t force libertarians to commit to a 100% rigid application of our principles. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the oddball objections: What happens if you fall out of your window and land on a little old lady’s flagpole? What happens if there’s an avalanche and you need to break into someone’s cabin to survive? What happens if aliens force you to murder someone or else they will blow up the planet? Etc.

Well, if aliens ever invade, then using this approach, we are not wedded to a strict application of principle since we would have a strong enough reason to override it. In just about every conceivable normal situation, however, they would still apply. Neither does this approach suffer from the problems of strict consequentialism which has it’s own untenable conclusions. There’s the example where a doctor could save five lives by murdering one person and harvesting his organs.

Now one could object that we do have a good enough reason to override normal moral principles, namely that anarchy would produce terrible outcomes. Ultimately, this turns into a debate about economics — a debate I’m more than willing to have. However, we do have to remember that the burden of proof lies with those who wish to override normal moral principles. What that means is that we don’t have to conclusively “prove” that anarchy would not produce terrible outcomes, rather the burden is on them to conclusively prove that it will. Something which I think it’s pretty obvious they haven’t done. At best you could say the economic debate is inconclusive at which point you just default back to normal moral principles.

In the book, Huemer considers the possibility that anarchy would produce terrible outcomes. However, under such circumstances only the bare minimum amount of coercion needed to create social order would be justifiable. Nothing like the broad political authority currently wielded by the state.

All told I find much to value in this approach. It provides a logically sound foundation for radical libertarianism while appealing to nothing more than moral intuitions held by nearly everyone. The Problem of Political Authority really looks to me to be checkmate for statists. Huemer is quickly turning into a rising star in the libertarian movement. I highly recommend giving his book a read.

Also, the book has already attracted serious attention. In March of this year Cato-Unbound ran a symposium entitled Authority, Obedience, and the State and just recently the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog ran it’s own symposium.  Be sure to read the criticisms and Huemer’s responses.

4 thoughts on “Ethical Intuitionism: A Philosophical Breakthrough?

    • I personally believe our moral intuitions come from God. For someone who believes in the existence of God that very well may explain why certain moral intuitions are held by nearly everyone.

      But the existence of God isn’t necessary for this line of reasoning to work, only the existence of moral intuitions.

  1. I do think Huemer’s book is a breakthrough in libertarian argumentation, and I’ve devoted a web site to it:

    You write: “Well, if aliens ever invade, then using this approach, we are not wedded to a strict application of principle since we would have a strong enough reason to override it. In just about every conceivable normal situation, however, they would still apply.”

    I’d put that a little differently: It’s entirely possible that one will encounter situations where violation of rights is justified, but those exceptions to normal morality don’t suffice to justify government. Huemer explains exceptions one may face here:

    You also write: “Now one could object that we do have a good enough reason to override normal moral principles, namely that anarchy would produce terrible outcomes”

    I think it’s important to point out that even if this were true it would justify *very* little of what government actually does, it would justify only what was necessary to avoid the terrible outcomes. It wouldn’t justify wealth redistribution, or a social safety net, or drug prohibition, or immigration restriction because we’ve seen society function without those policies and that didn’t produce the terrible outcomes that could justify rights violations.

    Excellent post.

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