Will Wilkinson:

If, like [Peter] Singer, we are utilitarians, we need not be too vexed by the problem of identifying the best morality. The best morality–the one that produces the largest sum of happiness–is the morality of liberal market societies.

I find Wilkinson’s argument compelling, because liberal market society is the main source of moral progress in the modern world (some people disagree, but I think this is pretty obvious). As Peter Singer and many others have convincingly argued, global poverty is one of the most important ethical issues of our time. Innocent people (including children) suffer and day everyday from preventable causes, such as hunger, disease, and lack of clean water. Singer, being a utilitarian, argues that we all must give substantially more money to charity than we currently do. This seems right. But consider the historical evidence on people escaping severe poverty. How many lives have been saved by the kinds of charitable donations that Singer advocates? Relatively few. How many lives have been saved by societies transitioning toward market liberalism? An astronomical amount. In China alone, virtually the entire population (at the time just under one billion) was in severe poverty at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Thirty-five years later, according to Singer, just over 200 million Chinese (out of a population of about 1.3 billion) are living on less than $1.25 per day. In China alone, a shift toward market liberalism has brought many hundreds of millions of people out of severe poverty in just a few decades. So if you care about poor people, spreading market liberalism seems like the way to go more so than donating to charity (although the two are not, of course, mutually exclusive).

However, there’s good reason to think that consequentialism and the  morality that serves as the foundation of market liberal societies are mutually exclusive, because the morality of market liberalism is not consequentialist. As David Schmidtz points out, the utility-promoting institutions of market liberal societies depend in large part on their ability to create “conditions under which people can trust each other not to operate in an act-utilitarian way.” Effectively promoting utility depends largely on not acting on the motivation to promote utility.

(Continued from here.)

According to Feinberg, A harms B when “A acts… with the intention of producing the consequences for B that follow, or similarly adverse ones, or with negligence or recklessness in respect to those consequences; A’s acting in that manner is morally indefensible, that is, neither excusable nor justifiable; and A’s action is the cause of a setback to B’s interests, which is also a violation of B’s right” (106). Thus, for A to harm B, A satisfy four conditions in addition to setting back B’s interests (for five total necessary conditions). A must act, A’s act must be done with the intention of setting back B’s interests (or be negligent with respect to B’s interests), A’s act must be morally indefensible, and A’s act must violate B’s right. It is these four conditions that make a setback of interests wrongful, and it is the combination of wrongfulness and a setback of interests that establishes a harm.

An act is morally indefensible when there is no justification or excuse for it. An excuse involves denying responsibility for conduct that is, without considering the context in which it was performed, bad. Though the act was bad, the person who carried it out shouldn’t be blamed for it. A justification for an action involves an argument for why the action was right, or at least permissible, considering the circumstances in which it was performed. Thus, in order to qualify as a harm, an act must be neither excusable nor justifiable (108).

Feinberg defines a right as “a valid claim which an individual can make in either or both of two directions. On the one hand, some of a person’s rights are claims he can make against specific individuals for assistance, repayment of debts, compensation for losses, and so on, or against all other individuals… to noninterference in his private affairs.” Rights can on the other hand be claims an individual makes “against the state, not only for specific services and promised repayments, and noninterference in his private affairs, but also claims to the legal enforcement of the valid claims he has against other private citizens” (109). A rights violation occurs when one of these valid claims is not met.

Of course,  establishing what counts as a right and what does not is a philosophically formidable task. However, thanks to Feinberg, we at least have a framework which can guide us in establishing whether something counts as a harm.


I’m working on a paper for a philosophy of law seminar which has focused on John Stuart Mill. Specifically, a central topic of discussion has been Mill’s harm principle. I’m starting to work on a paper on this (specific topic to be determined), and I figured I’d try writing a little bit here to clarify my thoughts and develop some ideas.


There was a kerfluffle in my home state this past week when two undocumented migrant farm laborers were detained after a traffic stop (both were passengers in the car). The Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project claimed that the two men were racially profiled in violation of Vermont State Police policy, which prohibits police from requesting immigration papers from people who are not suspected of a crime.

Governor Peter Shumlin’s reaffirmed the state’s commitment to a humane stance of immigration:

Shumlin said Vermont should “look the other way” when it comes to dealing with immigrants working illegally on Vermont farms. “We have always had a policy in Vermont where we kind of look the other way as much as we can,” Shumlin told WPTZ. “I just want to make sure that’s what’s we’re doing. [Vermont farms] can’t survive without workers from outside America. It’s just the way it is. ”


Shumlin ordered an investigation of the incident on Tuesday to determine whether the traffic stop violated with the state police’s “bias-free policing policy.”

Unsurprisingly, Vermont ( republicans are trying to demagogue the issue:

“Rather than turning a blind eye to laws he doesn’t like, Gov. Shumlin should be working with our congressional delegation, as former Gov. Douglas and Sen. Leahy did, towards finding legal solutions that would make every foreign worker in Vermont compliant with federal law, and that wouldn’t result in a depression of wages for those foreign workers that are in Vermont legally,” [ GOP chairwoman Pat] McDonald’s statement read.

“The hardworking officers of the Vermont State Police took an oath to uphold the law,” the GOP statement went on. “The governor’s new policy of ‘look the other way’ may sound good to those that support illegal immigration, but it is not the appropriate guidance a sitting governor should be giving to Vermont’s law enforcement community.”

Of course Shumlin should work with Vermont’s congressional delegation to advocate for immigration reform at the national level. But that doesn’t mean that Shumlin shouldn’t do what is directly within his power as a governor to promote a sensible immigration policy at the state level. These two measures are not mutually exclusive, as McDonald implies.

Immigration restrictionists often make the kind of argument put forth by McDonald. The police have a responsibility to uphold the law, so any policy telling them to “look the other way” forces them to violate their oath of service. Using the words “look the other way” was perhaps a mistake on Shumlin’s part, since it gave McDonald and the republicans a concise soundbyte that seems to be anti-law enforcement. However, upon closer scrutiny, McDonald’s argument doesn’t hold up.

There are many more criminal acts that take place each day than the police could possibly respond to. If this isn’t obvious to you, note how many people are driving over the speed limit the next time you’re on the interstate. Inevitably, the police have to choose the best way to deploy limited resources. It’s just common sense that they should prioritize law enforcement against crimes that endanger other people and have a significant detrimental effect on society.

Immigration involves human beings coming into the country in order to engage in peaceful,  mutually beneficial, voluntary exchange of labor for wages. They do jobs that Americans cannot or will not do, and they strengthen our economy. The fact that the United States has laws on the books that place such draconian restrictions on this activity is deeply unjust. But given that, for now at least, we are stuck with these laws, it makes perfect sense, and is completely legitimate, for the police to focus on fighting crime that actually hurts people.

New statistics on poverty in the United States were released a couple of days ago. Like most news about the economy for the past few years, it’s not good:

.  46-million Americans, roughly one in six, live in poverty

. 49.9-million Americans lack health insurance, up 13.3 million since 2000. 

. The U.S. can boast the highest overall poverty rate of any major industrialized nation; not surprisingly, it also has the highest childhood poverty rate.

. 21.6 percent of American children (that’s more than one-in-five) live in poverty.  Compare that to Denmark, where the number is 3.7 percent.

Depressing. A crucial point about how the Census Bureau calculates poverty statistics, however, is that a lot of anti-poverty programs aren’t taken into account. Only pure cash transfers, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, can affect the official poverty rate statistics. Programs like Medicaid and food stamps are ignored.

This is a problem because poverty rate statistics are used to inform policy debates about anti-poverty programs. But if the effects of many anti-poverty programs are ignored when these statistics are calculated, it significantly limits their usefulness. The numbers quoted above are not directly from the press release about the new poverty statistics. Rather, they were gleaned from a report by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Unsurprisingly, Bernie argues in the report that we are failing the nation’s poor and that we need to protect and improve anti-poverty programs. From the report’s conclusion:

As we look for solutions to reduce our nation’s debt, we must be cognizant of the effects of cutting social safety net programs. Choosing a path that impoverishes hundreds of thousands of people will result in unexpected yet largely predictable expenses in other parts of the budget. Knowing the potential impact of budgetary choices on the lives of individual Americans should help guide us to make not only the morally correct decisions, but also the financially responsible ones.

It would be much easier to be “cognizent of the effects of cutting social safety net programs” and know “the potential impact of budgetary choices on the lives of individual Americans” if these concerns were reflected in the official poverty statistics. But they’re not. We could double the food stamps program between now and the next time poverty statistics are released, and it would change nothing.

Given the state of the economy (especially high unemployment), you don’t really need statistics to tell you that people are struggling and that anti-poverty programs are needed even more now than they were a few years ago. But sound decision making relies on sound information, and in that respect, official poverty statistics as they are currently calculated fall short.

One of the uglier moments during last night’s Republican primary debate came when, in response to Ron Paul’s claim that the government should not be in the business of providing health insurance, Wolf Blitzer asked, “are you saying that society should just let [a sick person without insurance] die?” and some knuckle-dragging spectators enthusiastically whooped, “Yeah!” Ron Paul responded, more reasonably, that private charities should support people who fall through the cracks.

Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, responds,

This was indeed an appalling, mob-mentality moment—more medieval, even, than the crowd applauding Gov. Rick Perry for winning the death-penalty derby at the previous debate. What it clarified, however, was less the cruelty of the Tea Party crowd than the absurdity of the health-care positions of all of the Republican candidates. The GOP contenders relentlessly attack “Obamacare” as “socialized medicine.” But they won’t speak up for either of the other two choices available to them: the arguably more socialized system we have hitherto lived with or the Blitzer option of letting the uninsured die in the streets.

What about private charity?

“[W]e no longer have an extensive system of charity hospitals. If emergency rooms treat the uninsured, whether because of a legal requirement or because they are good Samaritans, they will be passing the bulk of the cost along to the rest of us—and we’re back to our current system of socializing the costs of treatments for the uninsured.”

I just can’t help but feel frustrated when “the government shouldn’t provide x” is conflated with “society shouldn’t provide x”. Idiot spectators notwithstanding, saying that society should not provide health care to people who can’t afford it and will die without it is plainly absurd and immoral. Saying that the government shouldn’t provide health care because health care is better provided by institutions other than the government is an empirical claim.

Now, although Weisberg conflates these two positions throughout the article (for example, that our two health care policy options are the  “socialized system we have hitherto lived with or the Blitzer option of letting the uninsured die in the streets”), he clearly understands this, because he spends a couple of sentences arguing that the empirical claim is false. I’m skeptical myself that private charities would necessarily be better health care providers of last resort than the government, and clearly we couldn’t just take the government out of health care overnight without some pretty disastrous humanitarian consequences. But there is some evidence that private mutual aid societies did a decent job of providing basic necessities in the past. At the least, Weisberg and many other progressives are giving short shrift to what is actually a fascinating and difficult empirical question.

Empirical issues aside, I think that it’s usually harmful to the cause of constructive political discourse when empirical disagreements are misconcieved as disagreements over principle. Two people who disagree about whether health care would be better without government involvement at least have a chance of having a productive discussion. Dialogue isn’t really possible, on the other hand, when an entire ideology is understood to be arguing that society should let uninsured sick people rot in their gurneys.

I’m starting a philosophy MA at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and I’ve been thinking about a recent exchange in a political theory seminar that I’m in. The subject of the conversation was self-interest and its relation to morality. There were a couple of students in the class who maintained that everything people do is actually self-interested, and that humans cannot behave in a non-self-interested way. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard somebody advocating this view; some Ayn Rand devotees I’ve run into argue the same thing. So how can these egoists explain the fact that people frequently act altruistically? Well, they say, when somebody gives to charity, or volunteers to teach at afterschool programs for underprivileged children, or whatever, that person is actually engaging in the so-called altruistic activity because of the personal feeling of satisfaction that they get, or because they think that their (seemingly) altruistic behavoir will make it so that people will help them if they ever fall on hard times. What really motivates whatever action a person might take is furthering her own self-interest.

This view is wrong. Observation of human behavior reveals that people often act selfishly and sometimes act altruistically. An interesting question is, what mechanisms cause one type of action, and what mechanisms cause the other? Is there a theory that can account for these behaviors? The crude egoism that was being defended in my seminar doesn’t offer any sort of interesting explanation of human behavior because it’s non-falsifiable. The philosopher Bernard Gert called it “tautological egoism”. The whole point of a theory of this sort is to explain empirical phenomena (in this case, human behavior). Tautological egoism substitutes for explanation a definitional bait-and-switch in which the meaning of “selfish” is changed so that it applies to all human actions. It offers no explanation and is not falsifiable, and therefore is theoretically extraneous and practically uninteresting.