Monday, 26 November 2007

Choices, choices

The "Devil" has replied to my post below. You should go and read his reply, partly because it's interesting, partly because little of what follows will make sense otherwise, but mainly because there's a very interesting discussion in the comments on exactly what it means to "own one's life".

In the interests of clarity, because it was definitely missed by some commenters both on here and at DK (and I think by the "Devil" as well): if I reject the premise that I own my life, it does not mean accepting that someone else owns it. What I am rejecting, in fact, is the underlying assumption that the concept of "ownership" can meaningfully be applied to the concept of "life". For example, we can all agree that I do not own "the philosophy of liberty". But that I don't doesn't mean that DK does, or Hayek does, or the US Libertarian Party do. "The philosophy of liberty" is not something which can be owned. In that way, and no other, it's a lot like life.

(This is why, to answer ph's question in the comments here, I object to slavery: because it treats life, or human beings, as nothing more than property. To argue that we own ourselves technically outwits the slave-owner, but only by accepting his basic principle while claiming an exception. Far better to reject his philosophy entirely.)

DK too sees some questions arising from my position:

"Are you denying that you should be able to make your own informed decisions about how you want to live your life?"

Let's clear this up: no. I am overwhelmingly in favour of being able to make my own choices. And I'm no-one special, so other people should be too. Great. But this is so much "Motherhood and Apple Pie" - the devil, if you will pardon the expression, is in the detail. Later on, DK refines his position (and admits that getting a precise definition is tricky, so this is tentative, not categorical):

"You own the right, when faced with your life choices, freely to make your own decisions"

Now, I don't see why we specify "own the right" as opposed to "have the right", but I suspect you already knew that. As suggested in the comments thread at DK, there are other difficulties, some more tediously obvious than others:
  • I can't choose to see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed, or commit any other physical impossibilities
  • I can't draw a four-sided triangle, or otherwise engage in logical impossibilities
  • I can't go out and buy a Ferrari - it's generally possible, but not in my specific instance
  • I can't hit you just because you're in my way
  • I can't play loud music if my neighbour wants to sleep
  • I can't stop my neighbour playing music in his own house
  • I can't be forced to file down the bunions of my boss's lecherous great-aunt
  • I can't renege on a contract I freely entered into: even if it specifies that I have to file down the bunions of my boss's lecherous great-aunt
It's the last two pairs of limitations that I want to look at now, because they highlight two issues that bear directly on the other major (linked) criticisms that DK and other commenters had on my original piece: "collectivisation" and the existence, or not, of the social contract.

1) People's choices interact and contradict: it is not always straightforward to see whose choice should prevail.

We can all agree that in these circumstances, there should be some means of resolving dispute that isn't "might makes right". Theoretically it's possible that the parties could at all times negotiate a solution between themselves, but even if that weren't flying the face of everything we know about human nature it also seems to me to be shifting the goalposts. If your right to get to sleep in your own home can only be secured by bunging your neighbour £50 to shut up, then it was never much of a right, was it? But in most cases, even in ludicrously simple disputes like this one, there will be appeal to some independent arbitration. It might be based on the gods writing in the entrails of the sacred chickens; it might be based on the judgement of appointed wise men; it might even, scarily, be based on rules created by representatives of the community as a whole. In whatever case, the system can only work if both parties agree to be bound by the decision. This brings us to the second point:

2) People can freely choose to limit their future ability to make free choices

Paradoxically, there are times when I improve my lot in life by limiting my own freedom of action. For example, by simply agreeing to be in the office during working hours, as opposed to sitting at home playing Civ IV, I can improve my economic outlook immeasurably. The tenant who commits to a year-long contract does so because this induces her landlord to offer more favourable rent. (The landlord, meanwhile, eschews his freedom to instantly evict her for more valuable tenants in return for guaranteed income.) When I speak of "submitting to the collective will" it is precisely this voluntary limitation of personal freedom of choice that I mean. In return for the benefits of living in a democratic society, I choose to let my freedom of choice be limited in certain ways by the will of the electorate. This choice holds even if the will of the electorate is not what I myself would choose. That, in fact, is the whole point.

In this context, then, I submit that it is nonsense to speak of taxation as theft. In any kind of society, my choices simply cannot be the sole governor of my behaviour, my circumstances or my life. Accordingly, I choose to live in a system where I can exercise choice, but limit others' power over me by voluntarily limiting my power over them. If, in certain limited areas, others impose their will on me for their own ends it is no more than I have freely chosen to allow.

Finally some commentators have, to paraphrase very slightly, asked when they signed the social contract. Personally, I suspect it was around the time you accepted the services offered by the other party: police, NHS-trained doctors, political stability, freedom of speech, women's rights, that kind of thing. Don't pretend you didn't know the deal, or aren't able to shop around. And if thousands of years of human social development have failed to produce a political settlement that matches your exacting requirements, I suppose that's just another example of your free choice being curtailed, isn't it?


peter h said...

"I do not own "the philosophy of liberty"."
You're right, you don't own it, and no-one has suggested you do. If you did it would be a damn cheek of ISL to refer to it as "our flash animation" and to charge people $12.95 plus postage for a copy on DVD.
If you really believe that people don't own their own lives, you might be in a bit of a minority. I wonder what Sue Rodriguez would have made of your view. She who began her testimony to a parliamentary committee in Ottawa with the very words "Who owns my life?" She thought she did.
You own your own life in the same way that you own your left leg or your thoughts and ideas, which is why we have laws against assault or theft of intellectual property.Attempted murder is a crime. Attempted suicide is not. Why is that? Could that be because the law recognises that I am entitled to dispose of my own property?
Regarding your reply to my previous comment, I suppose your view does have some merit. If you did ever meet a slave-owner and objected to his profession on the grounds that

"What I am rejecting, in fact, is the underlying assumption that the concept of "ownership" can meaningfully be applied to the concept of "life"."

he would probably laugh loud enough and long enough for you to make good your escape.

However, what we really seem to be discussing here is a definition of liberty. DK is close to Mill's definition although he would agree to state funding of defence, the police and the criminal justice system. I think he would describe himself as a minarchist, though I'm sure he will correct me if I'm wrong.I am closer to Stephen's position in that liberty must be restrained by law, morality and where necessary, religion if it is to be any kind of liberty at all. DK believes liberty is of absolute value, I believe it is of instrumental value only. In practice the difference is probably quite small.

Regarding your final paragraph, there is, of course, no contract. A contract must be voluntarily entered into. To claim otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the law of contract. There is no offer, there is no acceptance, consideration or intention to create legal relations.There is good evidence that the state itself does not regard its obligations as legally binding. It fails constantly to provide decent health care, education or law and order. This is not a contract. This is a protection racket.
You are right, though, we do have a choice. We can leave the country, as hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people do, every year and for exactly this reason - they don't like extortion.

Andrew Russell said...


1) "The philosophy of liberty" is not the flash animation. It is, and I really don't know any other way to put this, the philosophy of liberty. And that is not for sale, nor can it be owned.
2)Argumentum ad numerum. If I disagree with DK about whether "I own my life" makes sense, I'm hardly likely to change my mind because you've found someone else who's said it.
3)"This isn't an argument, it's a contradiction." You can repeat the mantra "you own your life, you own your thoughts, you own your leg" as much as you like. I disagree with the fundamental premise (that these things fall into the class of "things which can be owned"), and I am unlikely to be persuaded because you make me read the words a tenth time. And a moment's thought should show that there a number of reasons not to criminalize attempted suicide (such as "not throwing suicidal people into jail") that have nothing to do with the absurd concept of owning one's life.
4)In the outlandish scenario where you are cornered by this mythical slaveowner, do really the think the bold assertion "I own my life, sirrah!" would see him recoil, cover his head and flee the scene, muttering? There must, surely, be a better test for statements on the nature of liberty than their imagined effect on nefarious but hypothetical slave-owners.
5)As you say, people who want to can leave. They have a free choice in the matter. Therefore, those who stay have voluntarily chosen to. Therefore, they can pay their taxes like everyone else. Why is this difficult?

ph said...

I will adopt your numbering system, although I'm not sure what it refers to.

1. So when you said ""The philosophy of liberty"", you actually meant "the philosophy of liberty". I thought we were discussing a flash animation called "The Philosophy of Liberty". So the quotation marks can only be ironic, so we must be discussing something I can only call "The Non-Philosophy of Liberty" or possibly "The Philosophy of Non-Liberty." Odd.

So what can be meant by "the philosophy of liberty". I can only guess. If it is the contents of the flash animation, then we have a problem as we know someone owns that.

2.Let me make one thing clear, I was not trying to convince you of anything. The quote and the two following sentences were simply in support of my (admittedly minor) argument that your view is a minority one. In fact, I then tried to move the discussion on to what I believe to be the real dispute. I note that you have not responded.

3. ""This isn't an argument, it's a contradiction." " I really don't know what this means. Is it a quote?, or are these fright quotes again? Odder yet.
"I am unlikely to be persuaded because you make me read the words a tenth time." Again, I really don't know what this means. See above. Why you would accuse me of making you read the same words ten times, when I clearly have not done so is odder still.

4. " In the outlandish scenario where you are cornered by this mythical slaveowner, do really the think the bold assertion "I own my life, sirrah!" would see him recoil, cover his head and flee the scene, muttering?" This is perhaps the most baffling of all your remarks. I have never said this. In fact I explicitly stated that your belief would be preferable in this situation. You are either mistaken or are deliberately misreading what was said. You will forgive me for saying so but the slave-owner was your idea.

5. I find your views at this point to be outrageous. To say to people, in effect, "If you don't like it, leave the country", is an outrage. What about people who can't leave but would like to? Does that mean that they also have consented?

"Therefore, they can pay their taxes like everyone else. Why is this difficult?". It is difficult for the reasons I have previously given and which you have ignored. To claim a concern for poor people and then to refuse to engage with the concerns of ordinary people about the things that matter to them betokens a lack of moral seriousness.