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A Reply to David Gordon and Roberta A. Modugno’s Review of Escape From Leviathan (Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. 17 No. 4, 101-109)

David Gordon and Roberta A. Modugno (G&M) begin by providing a useful and, initially, accurate brief exposition of Escape From Leviathan.[1] It is agreeable to be generally understood and it makes being criticised much more productive. G&M then go on to suggest that “People often do not like to surrender their pet views even when evidence seems to show them false.” (102) All people have some views that they both think true and value. But to refer to these as “pet views” is at least suggestive of being an ad hominem. It is ostensibly, and erroneously, to suggest that such views ought therefore to be taken less seriously by others. Also, if the evidence really seemed to people to show their own views to be false, then how could they continue to hold those views? G&M appear to be implying that people can partly choose what they believe. That view has always seemed a false one to me and one that has the unfortunate consequence of stopping debate on the supposition that it is futile to argue against beliefs thus held (indeed, it would be futile to debate if we could choose what we believed).

Now, if we are to explain away recalcitrant evidence (and surely we should try to do so, for evidence itself needs to be tested), then presumably we might “devise an auxiliary hypothesis.” There cannot be anything wrong with this unless the auxiliary hypothesis is false, irrelevant or, as G&M suggest, it makes the combined hypothesis go “too far” (even all the way) towards making it “immune from refutation.” (102-103) And thus the argument is, at least, not cogent. They attempt to show that I do sometimes go “too far.” It should be noted that G&M propound the hypothesis that my view of liberty and welfare is unsound. My response is that they themselves come up with one “convenient auxiliary hypothesis” (106) after another to try to defend that position without ultimate success.

G&M next note my defence of a priori rationality. They wonder how consistent this is with “other parts of [my] project.” (103) But I concede, and even argue, in Escape From Leviathan that, as G&M put it, “there are logical connections between liberty and welfare that can be known a priori.” It does not follow that this is inconsistent with the “Popperian view that one’s theory is, at best, a conjecture that has survived testing.” For they have clearly mistaken Popper’s scientific epistemology (requiring empirical falsification, which they explain) with his, later, generalised critical rationalist epistemology (that all theories are conjectures that we criticise as best we can but cannot usefully attempt to support). Thus to argue that there are some a priori connections between liberty and welfare does not entail that these have been, or can be, given positive epistemological support. It is just to try to show that they withstand criticism so far as we can tell. Critical rationalism does not rest “on the contention that nature does not disclose necessary relations to us.” For critical rationalism can accept that there are necessary relations in mathematics, for instance, but says this does not mean we can avoid having to conjecture proofs that might turn out eventually to be faulty (as Leonard Euler, 1707-1783, showed was true in various cases).

Though having said that, I cannot see how there are necessary relations in “nature” (the physical world) or how ‘she’ might “disclose them” to us. Nor do I see that “philosophy is an a priori discipline” tout court. Philosophical problems are often affected by advances in science and technology.[2] We would not expect that of what is purely a priori. My current view of the a priori is that it is a matter of degree and not always clear. The a priori aspects of rationality, for instance, come down to very general truths that we can assume without usefully testing or criticising them at every turn (though doing so occasionally is fine). For instance, it is conceivable that (other) human beings are not agents at all but unconscious, or that some agents make perverse utility choices (somehow choosing what gives them less utility), or that people’s limbs do not move as they choose, etc. If any of these things were systematically true then economics as a discipline explaining the world would be in trouble. But such bizarre assumptions do not withstand criticism or testing (as I argue of sundry similar assumptions in the chapter on rationality in Escape From Leviathan). If it seems to some people that this is to deny that there really are a priori truths, then I could drop that expression with anyone who felt that way. However, it does seem to be a very useful term to me and some near equivalent would be needed to replace it (perhaps the humorous translation of knowing things armchairiori). Nor, at risk of being pedantic, is philosophy itself really a “discipline.” It is too fundamental and diverse to have the structure of a discipline.

G&M state that “Mises does not claim that everyone is out to maximize certain pleasant sensations, or minimize painful ones” but that “Lester maintains exactly that.” (104) This is odd. Mises sometimes at least appears to slide into this error, as I point out in Escape From Leviathan (16):

Strictly speaking the end, goal, or aim of any action is always the relief from a felt uneasiness. (Human Action, 9[3])

What a man does is always aimed at an improvement of his own state of satisfaction. (Ibid, 242)

By contrast, I take pains to avoid this error. I do indeed state that “What [not ‘When’ as G&M have it] one desires or wants to do, one has utility (felt satisfaction, in a very general sense) at the thought of having, achieving, or doing. This requires conscious ... desires to motivate us as agents.”(Escape From Leviathan, 47) But I argue that such utility cannot be reduced to hedonism, eudaemonism or psychological egoism. The course of action that we find most ‘satisfying’ might be some terrible duty. But it must somehow vie with other possibilities and satisfy our desires more than any alternative action. Or why would we choose it? I admit that I find mere ordinality of choices very strange as they seem to lack “the notion of conscious beings.”(Ibid. 48)

They then ask why if someone purchases a loaf of bread “his act of purchase be accompanied by feelings, e.g., anticipatory hunger pangs?” I do not suggest “anticipatory hunger pangs” are necessary, only that some feeling is. “Why is it not enough if one recognizes a reason to act in a certain way?” Because one must feel that it is a sufficient reason—and better than any alternative. I can recognise or understand that something is a reason without being motivated by that reason. By analogy, I can recognise or understand a theory without the feeling that it is true. Only our feelings can change intellectual apprehensions into actual desires and beliefs. However, these feelings can be David Hume’s “quiet passions” especially if there is not much to compete with them at the time. And so they might be assumed to be ‘pure reason’ that is motivating or persuading us. Like Hume, I cannot see how pure reason could do this. I do not say that it is “part of the concept of action that feelings must always direct a choice.” But then I tend to follow Popper in thinking that conceptual analysis is not very useful in solving real philosophical problems.

Though my explicit theory of liberty is “very different from that held by most libertarians” (105) I assert that it is what libertarians implicitly hold or at least require. I do not, of course, see how liberty could coherently be defined “by reference to coercion” because in the plain English sense ‘coercion’ (the use or threat of force to compel behaviour) is neither necessary nor sufficient to make an act unlibertarian.

G&M look at my discussion of Salman Rushdie’s offending many millions of Muslims. Perhaps a similar kind of problem arises in principle if, as they suggest, we simply make the auxiliary assumption that “a large number of Muslims was upset by the mere fact that he did not adhere to that religion.” But it is not really the “same problem” just because there are so many who might upset Muslims this way. Still, we can ignore the improbability of that auxiliary assumption and grant that only Rushdie is causing annoyance in this way. How does this “eliminate the issue of provocation by the minority”? Why are the Muslims not ‘provoked’ just because Rushdie did not need to take any action to provoke them? (Or might G&M mean that this general issue does not need a “minority” to arise? I never thought it did, but then there is a weaker case for suppressing so many and I wanted as strong a case as possible.)

I certainly do not make a “distinction between harm and benefit” (as G&M state). My distinction is between cost and benefit. I explain that ‘harm’ is hopeless for the job, as it is libertarian objectively to harm people with their permission and it is not libertarian to save people from objective harm against their wishes (Escape From Leviathan, 59-60). Can G&M show that my distinction between cost and benefit “faces collapse”? They suggest that “In ordinary terms ... Rushdie’s failure to profess the Muslim faith ... fails to confer the benefit they would obtain were he to join them. But if the Muslims find upsetting Rushdie’s refusal ... they are harmed.” I unpack this rather differently in Escape From Leviathan. I am not really interested in how this might be put in “ordinary terms” but how the assumed theory of liberty is correctly applied here. It might well flout common sense. If Rushdie’s non-Islamic status means that Muslims have lower utility than if Rushdie did not exist, then his existence is an imposed cost to the Muslims. Whether his conversion would only remove this cost or also be a positive benefit does not alter this fact. Thus the cost-benefit distinction is not threatened by this example.

Nor do I see that “Lester recognizes this point” when I say that “Others’ benefits impose no cost on us except insofar as we feel unavoidably covetous or envious.” (Escape From Leviathan, 77) It is not Rushdie’s benefits that are imposing a cost by his not being Islamic. G&M mention ‘my’ example that, in their words, “someone’s failure to share water from his well makes his covetous neighbor upset, thus harming him. Here precisely the failure to benefit someone becomes a harm to that very person.” (106) Strictly, my main example was that you do not impose a cost (not “harm”) by producing and monopolising a well, with the qualification “except insofar as we feel unavoidably covetous or envious” (and that these emotions are usually not unavoidable but largely self-inflicted). However, let us again grant G&M’s auxiliary hypothesis and assume that there are some serious and systematic examples where failing to benefit someone is itself primarily what imposes on them, through unavoidable envy or lust or whatever. That would still not show that benefits and costs conceptually collapse into each other. Rather, they would be examples of particular practical inseparabilities. They would not vitiate the conceptual distinction or, of course, all cases where they can in practice be separated.

G&M find “weak” my quoted argument that “people can more or less control their emotional response to mere opinions—especially in the long term. The angry Muslims more or less chose to react angrily.” Lester has “simply helped himself to a convenient auxiliary hypothesis.” Yes, that is right. We ought to help ourselves to convenient auxiliary hypotheses as freely as our imaginations can allow. As I said at the start, this is only a mistake if they are not true, or relevant, or make the thesis less falsifiable. It is positively desirable if someone “produces out of thin air a hypothesis that, he hopes, will defuse the counterexample.” Putative (not to beg the question) counterexamples need themselves to be criticised. And all hypotheses are ultimately unsupportable assumptions that come “out of thin air” (our imaginations). This is palpably not to “render [my] conception immune from falsification.” It is merely to argue that a particular attempted falsification does not work for the reason given.

I do not see how my reply to the criticism using an “auxiliary hypothesis” makes my original conjecture “less bold.” Suppose I conjecture that there are no talking dogs. G&M suggest that there is a well-known talking dog in Alabama. I go to Alabama to check and discover that this appears to be, rather, a very clever ventriloquist act. My “auxiliary hypothesis” reply to G&M does not make my original conjecture one whit less bold. I am not making dogs dumb by definition. I continue to conjecture that dogs cannot talk “simpliciter.” The auxiliary hypothesis that a particular putative counterexample is a clever ventriloquist act does not modify the original conjecture. Of course, if an ‘auxiliary hypothesis’ is defined as being one that modifies the original conjecture, then I deny that I have made one (but that was not what G&M originally claimed). G&M then “suggest as a criterion for an auxiliary hypotheses [sic] that it itself be a conjecture that has survived testing.” From a falsificationist perspective, it is utterly irrelevant that a conjecture has withstood tests thus far (only a justificationist would think that relevant). It is only relevant that it is testable. And in broader critical rationalist terms, it need only be criticisable. My, initial, point that people have some considerable control over their emotional responses is quite criticisable. There are all sorts of things one might say against it (though I, naturally, conjecture that they will not suffice to refute it). So my reply meets critical rationalist requirements, and it would be faulty if it tried to live up to G&M’s justificationist requirements.

Finally, G&M get around to criticising the actual argument instead of mistakenly arguing that it is epistemologically illegitimate. First they say that “[c]ontrary to what [Lester] says, it seems to us that emotional responses to opinions often resist efforts to alter them.” (106-107) But the Muslims did not need to make “efforts” to alter their emotional responses. They needed only to stop making efforts to work themselves into a frenzy, partly at the behest of their religious leaders (the ‘anger’ was a sham put on out of duty to religion). G&M do not deny that, as I put it, “they more or less chose to react angrily.” And that is the practical point in this example. For the sake of argument, G&M grant that the Muslims can control their emotions about Rushdie and his book. They ask why they are obligated to do so in order to minimise imposed costs, as the “principle says nothing about people having to change their views about harms [costs] to them.” But the principle is supposed to be as abstract as possible. So, of course, it does not specify how it is to be interpreted in practice. The principle says nothing explicit about even such basic things as self-ownership or how private property is acquired. These relations are what I was trying to derive.

More relevantly, G&M go on to ask whether requiring people to become vegetarian would be “required by liberty, if it turns out that meat eaters could easily alter their preferences about food, but vegetarians cannot expunge their feelings of revulsion at the thought that some people eat meat.” The strict answer is ‘yes’ (though with compensation payable that is half way between the alternative imposed costs to each side). The main reason that this is indeed, as they see, counterintuitive to our notions of what is acceptable and liberal is that people are not at all like this. In reality, the typical meat eater delights in his diet and would miss it hugely (I write having returned rather disappointed from a luncheon invitation that turned out to be vegetarian) while the typical vegetarian clearly does not have a comparably strong feeling of disgust at the mere thought of someone else eating meat and, in any case, does not need to think about it. So G&M have here exactly the kind of fantasy criticism (which, following R. M. Hare, I discuss in Escape From Leviathan especially with respect to utilitarianism) with which our intuitions have not evolved or been accustomed to deal. However, suppose we take a more realistic analogy with their example (and one I use in Escape From Leviathan). Is requiring people to respect land ownership consistent with liberty if it turns out that nomads can easily alter their preferences but settlers cannot expunge their feelings about the extreme disutility of not being able to settle and protect land? Yes, and that is the world we live in. But things might be different if the vast majority of people were naturally nomadic.

G&M then suggest that even allowing for “controllable” preferences it might “be easier to induce Rushdie to curb his (surely voluntarily adopted) preference for writing novels designed to provoke his readers than to demand that several million Muslims change their reactions.” And if that is all the choice ultimately involves (Rushdie versus vast Muslim disapproval in a one-off situation) then perhaps Rushdie should curb his preferences to write such novels. But my argument on self-control was not supposed to stand alone in such an abstract setting. It is merely the first point I make before bringing in more aspects of the case. My so-called “second response” about the general consequences of giving in to those who are upset at what others are thinking about is another part of the whole argument. G&M think that it is possible to limit the rule simply to examples where “a very large number of people are greatly upset by the statements made by one person.” Let us yet again grant them this “convenient auxiliary hypothesis” (but in reality there are surely also many who value hearing such a person, and his views are almost always very far from unique: he is simply a well-known proponent). This still creates a dictatorship of the majority against anyone that the media currently makes into a scapegoat. Free speech is undermined where it is most valuable: the lone voice with a different view. What better way to stop all intellectual progress. Even in science a novel theory will often upset the establishment. Thus in the long term the suppression of free speech looks likely to impose more than toleration even here.

But G&M then allow for the sake of argument that “a limited principle of suppression of offensive speech would, in time, collapse into an unacceptable rule.” (107-108) Let us grant their auxiliary hypothesis that the limited principle would not itself impose overall. They then ‘help themselves’ to another auxiliary hypothesis: that a “natural reading” of minimising imposed costs is that it be applied not with regard to the long term consequences, but “at that time.” As I make clear and argue in Escape From Leviathan that imposed costs cannot reasonably be restricted to the immediate circumstances or even to what people are consciously aware of (it is sufficient that something flouts what someone values: an unknown theft or even trespass is an imposed cost), I cannot see why it should matter what is the “natural reading”—even if we grant that it is the “natural reading.” But supposing that imposed costs refer only to the immediate circumstances seems as bizarre as thinking that a utilitarian calculation would ‘naturally’ refer to only the immediate circumstances. And, in any case, how immediate is “at that time”? The next few seconds, hours, days? G&M think that I at least “owe” them “some account of how present and future consequences of a policy are to be assessed.” The short answer is by conjecture and criticism. How else? I cannot, of course, justify my view. Putting the general issue in a realistic scenario, do G&M really think that any long-term policy of forcibly suppressing freedom of communication or belief could be a lesser cost imposition than the discomfort of occasionally realising that some people are thinking or believing things of which one strongly disapproves? As I cannot see how this is likely, I cannot see a realistic problem with the conception of liberty I am defending and applying.

Of my account of welfare, G&M state that “Lester, unlike Mises and Rothbard, maintains that interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible.” This bald statement is seriously misleading. My position includes the following theses: 1) we cannot help making some rough and ready comparisons of utility; 2) without these we would not be able to make proper sympathetic sense of individual and social circumstances; 3) we are not really comparing the same thing, especially when it comes down to details; 4) we certainly cannot compare utility in any ‘scientific’ detail sufficient to have planning; 5) granting approximate plausible interpersonal utility comparisons (at least ad arguendo) leads us back to libertarian policies in practice; and 6) merely dismissing all welfare comparisons as nonsense, leaves libertarians in a very weak rhetorical position and appearing callous with it.

G&M offer a “key objection” to my thesis that minimising imposed costs and maximising welfare are congruent in practice. This is along similar lines to their previous auxiliary hypothesis. They posit that the Muslims “dissipate their angry feelings toward Rushdie” so he lives without imposing costs. However, “the Muslims would be made extremely happy by Rushdie’s demise ... their total satisfaction outweighs Rushdie’s reluctance to give up his life.” (109) Thus, “minimizing imposed costs and maximizing welfare lead to different results” and my “account of welfare, taken by itself, leads to a counterintuitive outcome, so it also stands refuted.” First, a “counterintuitive outcome” is not a refutation. Indeed, if an argument is sound then the truth of the counterintuition is refuted. But my compatibilist thesis (reconciling liberty, welfare and anarchy) is explicitly stated at the start of Escape From Leviathan, and repeated throughout, to be about realistic and long-term effects. G&M recognise my likely reply from another example I use: “We would have to appeal to the indirect consequences of allowing any sufficiently large majority to persecute a sufficiently small minority.” (Escape From Leviathan, 159) And once more G&M simply help themselves to the convenient auxiliary hypothesis that “[o]nce more, Lester has simply helped himself to a convenient auxiliary hypothesis.” They say that without “certain assumptions about indirect consequences” my thesis would appear to be false. So they “may regard as true these assumptions about indirect consequences” but the thesis is damned for being “a textbook case of what Popper terms an immunization strategy.” No, that is not an immunization strategy. I am not adding assumptions that effectively mean the thesis cannot be falsified. I am merely citing a reason why it is not falsified. And to grant the “indirect” defence, as they do, is ipso facto to concede that it is defended. There is nothing illegitimate about appealing to the indirect and long-term consequences unless I am mistaken about these. Again, in a realistic long-term situation (which is what I state my compatibility thesis is about: not singular or imaginary cases), do G&M really believe that it is on balance a less cost-imposing principle to allow any majority to persecute or murder any single person they merely dislike?

Overall, I feel that G&M have made some relevant points that have enabled me usefully to clarify my arguments. But if they had not kept raising the erroneous point about auxiliary hypotheses they might have focussed on and criticised my arguments more cogently.

J. C. Lester

[1] J C Lester, Escape From Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy Reconciled, Macmillan/St Martin's Press, 2000.

[2] As philosophy and science were one up to Galileo Galilei’s time, then progress in one could be held to be so in the other.

[3] Mises, Ludwig Edler von. [1949.] 1966. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. 3rd rev. ed. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co.


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