Rocco: Not waiting but drowning.

Last week Russell wrote a rather good article (as he usually does), called “The Left’s Lifeboat Logic”. Unfortunately he goes off course along the way, and I’m going to criticise him quite harshly in what follows for drifting into anti-libertarian waters. Russell scolds the “left” for abusing ‘lifeboat situations’. But he too believes in ‘lifeboat situations’ that necessitate State interference. It’s just that Russell’s lifeboats come in a different colour.

Where does Russell go wrong, then? He quotes the “ever-excellent” Jonah Goldberg:

“In a lifeboat, if you have ten candy bars and someone else has none, you must share. Property rights go out the window. The problem with lifeboat logic [... ] is that it only applies in lifeboat situations. It doesn’t apply when you can jump out of the lifeboat and swim to shore… By invoking an existential crisis when there is none, you are saying that [...] individual rights must be suspended for the greater good.”

The first two sentences of that quote alone should set alarm bells ringing. For neither Jonah nor Russell is this the case, though. Instead, both take it for granted that in “lifeboat situations” property rights become meaningless, and all that matters is “the greater good”. The last sentence of the Goldberg quote might be mistaken for liberal: you lefties don’t care about individual rights, damn you! But Jonah and Russell are themselves saying that the existence of individual rights is dependent upon the absence of an “existential crisis”, whatever that may mean. They merely disagree with the hated lefties on exactly when individual rights can be disregarded.

Imagine Russell and I are the fellows in the lifeboat, and that I have all the candy bars. Russell claims that, given our situation, “property rights [have gone] out the window”, and therefore I must share my candy with him. But this is clearly nonsense. Property rights, far from going out the window, are coming in through the front door thick and fast. He now has property rights in candy bars where before he did not. Property rights have not vanished, but multiplied – why else “must” I share the candy bars? We’ll enquire into how Russell comes by these alleged rights later. For now, let’s assume they are real rights and tackle some “practical” problems this new distribution throws up.

How many of the ten candy bars “must” I hand over to Russell, so as not to infringe on his new rights? At first glance it seems that five is the only correct answer. There are two of us in the same situation, the common pool of ten candy bars should be shared equally. But hang on a moment. Are we really in the same situation? The question is not an absurd one. For instance, one of us may be diabetic – equality of candy bars might be fatal. What about this: I’m a pretty skinny dude – maybe I don’t need to eat that much anyway. Five candy bars for me might be ‘too many’ by the peculiar standards of lifeboat logic. Then again, perhaps this means I should have more, that I somehow ‘deserve’ a good meal? Or consider this: Russell has children, whereas I don’t. Is Russell’s survival therefore more in keeping with promoting “the greater good” than mine? Maybe, seen from this perspective, he has property rights in all ten candy bars? But then again, surely there is at least one perspective from which my survival, even if it means Russell’s death, is for “the greater good”. Or what about this: How hungry are me and Russell? Maybe we should measure our respective hungers and compare them, with the hungrier receiving a larger share of candy bars? But such an interpersonal comparison of subjective values is impossible. And even if it weren’t, we’d still be left with the question of precisely how many more candy bars the hungrier of us should get. No matter which way we turn, we are confronted with the fact that any distribution of shared candy bars would be entirely arbitrary. Which is problematic because apparently Russell has definite property rights in the candy bars, and a right means you can enforce particular behaviours. That is, should I refuse to hand over any candy, Russell can legitimately use violence to take a bar/some bars/all the bars from me, and, likewise, I can legitimately use violence to keep a bar/some bars/all the bars.

Perhaps the concept of “existential crisis” can help solve this puzzle. Maybe I “must share” if he is at the existential crisis-point of starving to death? Again we don’t know exactly how many candy bars I must give him, but we can now at least see the issue clearly: the candy bars were just a red herring. Russell’s “property right” is actually a “right to life”. Somehow, Russell has aquired rights over me; I can be forced to keep him alive. The ‘somehow’ is nothing but his ‘need’ to remain alive. But a ‘need’ is nothing more than a strong preference.

Oh, but surely “need” is of a wholly different type than “want”? Without, say, books, we might be unhappy, but a lack of books isn’t an “existential crisis”. Without food, we’d die. Books are a luxury, food a necessity. We “need” food.

Not so fast. This argument rests on the assumption that carrying on living is itself a necessity. But this is clearly not true – for proof look no further than suicide. Men can, and do, choose death over life. Even on a lifeboat, suicide is possible. Now, people kill themselves for all sorts of reasons, and each suicide, by that very act, demonstrates that they “needed” something other than oxygen, food and water to carry on living. So, contrary to Jonah/Russell, if “existential crises”, ie, “needs”, ie, strongly expressed preferences create rights, then lifeboat logic doesn’t only apply in lifeboats, it applies at all times. The whole world is one big lifeboat! Each potential suicide (and anyone can potentially commit suicide over absolutely anything at any time) would have the right to force someone or other to perform certain acts. The jilted lover would have the right to force his ex to love him; the student scared of getting bad grades would have the right to force his examiners to pass him; the morbidly obese chap would have the right to force a surgeon to make him thin, etc, etc, etc.

We know there are sensitive souls who say they couldn’t live without art. How can we know for sure they’re not deadly serious about this? If, on our lifeboat Russell tells me he “couldn’t live without music,” must I sing to him? Apparently I must. And this holds when we reach land, too. As “needs” are logically no different from “wants”, he wouldn’t even have to threaten to kill himself. He could just tell me he “needs” me to sing to him, and this by itself would create an enforceable right. Conversely, I could tell Russell that I “need” to remain silent, which would itself be an enforceable right exactly counter to his. Picture such a system of “rights” applied universally. The result would be utter chaos, no different from if property rights had indeed “gone out the window”.

  • Mots

    Might it be that lefties do not recognise the concept of property rights ?

    • Rocco

      The ‘need creates rights’ position is common to both leftists and rightists. It is, in fact, the standard justification for “some kind of social safety net” amongst right-wingers.

      • Mots

        I suppose I meant ‘Rights’ as in property title – if you believe “property is theft” then its easier to adjust rights

        • Rocco

          Oh, I don’t think that Russell Taylor believes that property is theft, Mots.

          Actually, if you’re looking for historical similarities, Marx is a better fit than Proudhon. Russell’s idea that in desperate situations absolute private property rights “go out the window” (which is the idea that I am criticising in the article, of course) is very similar to the famous line from his Critique of the Gotha Programme: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” In the ‘lifeboat situation’ property is taken from the man who has the candy bars (“according to his ability”), and given to the man without candy bars (“according to his need”).

          • Barry-Jon

            It might be useful if you were to write a post that explains absolute property rights. Ideally one that explains their foundation and/or justification. Given that so much rests on the assumption of absolute property rights.

          • Rocco

            Sorry, man. I’ve made it sound much more complicated than it is with this “absolute” business. I just mean the common understanding of property applied consistently. That is, “finders keepers” for unowned stuff, and owning a thing means you can do what you like with it, short of damaging another person or their property.

          • Barry-Jon

            Except it is much more complicated than finders keepers isn’t it? Absolute rights to private land (though not one’s work) could be considered as an aggressive act (the act of forcibly excluding others from that land).

            I know you have previously described yourself as being an absolutist when it comes to property rights, and I understand much hinges on this first precept. So it must surely be worth a full post describing that position and justifying it, insofar as you think necessary, against alternative philosophical arguments.

          • Rocco

            It’s not more complicated than that, dude. Who on earth (literally) could claim to be a victim of aggression in the case of a good no one has previously laid a hand on? Someone on the other side of the world is a victim if I make use of a plot of land they didn’t even know existed? Yeah, right.

            But yes, I can do a post on this. Depending on whether anything particularly interesting happens, I may have it up next week.

          • Barry-Jon

            At the extreme, if one were to imagine an undiscovered island upon which a lifeboat with two people lands. One of those people is unconscious and the other lays claim to the entirety of the island before the other wakes, how is that morally justified? If one uses their land to pollute the local atmosphere making all neighbouring landowners require expensive breathing apparatus to ensure they are not poisoned, how is that morally justified? Preventing others access to a piece of land is aggressive, there must surely be a more sophisticated argument to support such aggression than finders keepers. Are you drawing from Natural Law theory or some other justification?

          • Rocco

            In order: Simply announcing he owns the island doesn’t mean he owns it, he hasn’t “mixed his labour” with it. Filling the air with pollutants that damage others’ property is trespass, hence not morally justifiable. If preventing access to land is aggressive, then preventing access to anything (eg, you can’t use my car) is aggressive – this would mean extinction for humanity, by the way, as eating a thing prevents everyone else from “accessing” it.

          • Rocco @Bogpaper

            Just in case you missed it, man, that piece is up.

          • Barry-Jon

            Thanks. I had missed it. And I had just written a reasonably lengthy but unfinished reply when my browser crashed (on my ipad. So apple’s it just works is really not always true).

            I am off to bed now but will reply tomorrow. I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my request. I enjoy reading your posts and your comments.

          • Rocco @Bogpaper

            No problem, man.

  • Bob H

    The lifeboat situation is much like normal life . The man with the gun, a ship’s officer, would commandeer and ration the resources. The man with 10 candy bars would only admit to having 2 and share them out. The consensus ethics would be decided by the balance of power. None of this should really change basic individual rights if one believed in them.

  • silverminer

    We don’t need the State to come to a good outcome in a “lifeboat” situation. This is the point the Collectivists always miss, some deliberately, some because they’ve been brain washed.

    If I’m sat in a boat with all the candy bars, unless the other person is a total shit and deserves death, I’m going to share because I’m a human being and that’s just the way most of us are. Humans, except the psychopathic ones, are “Good Samaritans”, we don’t walk on by on the other side, except where we have our morals corrupted by things like the Welfare State where we’re indoctrinated into believing we’ve outsourced the instinctual responsibility to care for our fellow men to the Government (that’s what we pay our taxes for, right?).

    The Collectivists always argue from the point of view of scarcity, but if you get into the mindset of abundance, rather than scarcity, then a free and voluntary society without poverty is an easier thing to imagine.