Thursday, January 15, 2009

Do We Have a Duty to Empower Others?: Another Piece of a Reply to Lapidus

In my last post, I began thinking about how one might go about justifying the government's role in empowering our lives, in response to a comment by a fellow contributor to the group blog, University and State. That post was dedicated to forming an understanding of what it even means to empower a person, and I discussed how we can think of empowerment both in a negative sense (where we foster an obstacle-free environment in which they can live their lives) and in a positive sense (where we help people to obtain the means they need to pursue their ends). In this post, I will take my analysis a step further.

The core issue in thinking about a government empowering people seems like it would have to stem from the way that the government typically goes about its business. As Jim Peron put it in his article, "The Peace Principle":
I have been mugged and I have been taxed. The mugger took far less, showed up only once, and didn't try to pursuade me he was doing it for my own good.

The problem is that generally, government intervention comes irrevocably tied to infringements of the negative liberties discussed earlier. The government does not produce its own wealth or operate as a Buchananite consensus-builder. Rather, it makes use of the threat of force (or the actual application of force in the face of uncooperativeness) to amass resources for its projects. In so doing, it necessarily interferes with and constrains the lives of its citizens.

As we said before, these sorts of infringements can be justified, but they need to be backed up by strong reasons. In his essay, "Liberal Neutrality: A Compelling and Radical Principle," Gerald Gaus captures this idea with the suggestion that "Alf ought not to coerce or force Betty unless Alf has an impartial reason justifying the coercion, a reason that as a fully rational moral agent, Betty would accept as justifying the coercion." We said that the need for basic rules of social coexistence can serve as such a reason (though perhaps only when people actually want to live together). But can we say the same about forcing productive and peaceful individuals to provide for the flourishing and prosperity of others -- people that in the overwhelming majority of cases have never noticeably contributed anything to the lives of their would-be benefactors?

This post will focus on one step on the way to justifying such coercion: a duty to empower. If individuals have no duty to empower others, it would seem difficult to justify forcing them to do it, or using the threat of force to take their resources to do it for them. So do we have a duty to empower?

There is some reason to think that the answer may be yes, at least to an extent. In his essay, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Peter Singer offers a simple yet famous illustration:
...if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

Outside of radical libertarian feedback loops, you'd be hard pressed to find many people who genuinely disagree with this sentiment. The key elements of this account can be isolated rather easily: the child's need is great and urgent, and the cost to you would be relatively small considering the seriousness of the circumstances. This idea was captured in Donald Vandeveer's essay,"Interspecific Justice," as a distinction between "basic" and "peripheral" interests -- the idea being that to take proper account of basic interests is to acknowledge that they must not be subordinated to peripheral interests, even when the peripheral interests are your own, and the basic interests are someone else's. (Vandeveer was talking about nonhuman species, but his point applies just as well if not better with respect to persons.)

Many libertarians -- especially those identifying with an egoistic view of one sort or another -- will bristle at the suggestion that we have such a duty. But recall that the reason that we endorsed a broadly liberal approach to ethical reasoning in the first place was that we want to take proper account of the value of individuals. Wouldn't it seem odd if on one hand we were saying that individuals must be respected because their lives are important and valuable, and on the other hand we were saying that there's nothing wrong when people act as though others are irrelevant and worthless? I think so.

But in saying that, I don't mean to create the suggestion that we are "sacrificial animals" (to use the phrasing of the ever-abrasive Objectivists), required by morality to subordinate ourselves to others whenever they can coherently make the case that their needs and wants are "more important" than ours. An important part of what makes our lives valuable and worth respecting is that we can live them for ourselves. Another way to think of this is to say that even though we may have a peripheral or relatively unimportant interest in any particular activity we may be engaging in over the course of a normal day, we have an important or even basic interest in being able to plan and execute our lives according to our own plans, without having to think of ourselves as being at the beck and call of anyone who finds herself in a bind at any particular moment.

It may be noticed at this point that on one hand, we've said that we shouldn't brush off the importance of others' basic interests, even when they come into conflict with some of our more peripheral interests. And on the other hand, we've said that it is important to us to be able to live our own lives without having to constantly subordinate ourselves to the needs and wants of others -- that is, our independence and self-determination aren't peripheral. How do we reconcile these two seemingly plausible but opposing views? I think the answer is to compromise: in extreme situations, it seems like we do have a duty to act in order to preserve the basic interests of others, but we are nevertheless entitled to generally live our lives according to our own goals and wants. To do so does not imply disrespect for the value of others' lives, but rather a full respect for the value of our own.

So we've concluded that in extreme situations, where someone is in serious need and we could easily help them, then we do have a duty to do so. We can think of this in terms of empowerment by saying that when someone lacks the sort of effective capacity for self-determination lamented by Cohen, and we can easily remedy this state of affairs, then morality commands us to do it. But we've also concluded that because it's important to us that we be able to live our own lives, we have no duty to devote ourselves to empowering others. That's not to say that it is not virtuous to do so, or that we should not focus on the richness that helping others can bring to our lives. I only seek to suggest that if someone chooses to pursue his own dreams, living his life primarily for himself except where impelled by emergency to come to the aid of his fellow people, it wouldn't be fair for us to say that he has failed morally or behaved in an evil manner.

I think that's a good place to stop for now. In my next post, I'll take another step in my analysis, asking whether someone's failure to fulfill the duty discussed here would be the kind of thing we could point to as justifying coercion (in libertarian language: is the duty enforceable?).

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