News flash: Libertarian invents new reason not to help people!

Thinking about the coronavirus is bleak, so let’s do some political philosophy to cheer ourselves up.

Libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan has a new post up claiming that our obligations to help strangers are much weaker than we might think they are, and may not exist at all, because most people are “morally very bad”.

Brennan begins with this question:

To what degree are our moral obligations to provide help and assistance to strangers reduced because those strangers are likely to be morally bad people?

He answers this question in 3 steps.  First, he argues that you do not have any reason to keep Bob, a rapist or child molester, from starving, even if you can easily afford to help.  Second, he argues that even if Bob has not actually done anything wrong, if Bob has a bad character and would do something very bad if he could get away with it, then you don’t have any reason to help Bob:

Bob is an evil person, though he has not yet done anything evil. We owe evil people less. You are free to, say, spend the money on toys for yourself rather than keep him alive through your charity. Indeed, you probably are obligated to refrain from helping keep Bob alive.

Finally, Brennan argues that most people are in fact morally very bad:

. . . Most people are disposed to be utter conformists and to obey evil authority. Nearly all our neighbors are disposed to be obedient concentration camp guards; they only reason they haven’t done that is because, thanks to moral luck, they haven’t been in such a situation. Further, most of people’s apparently altruistic behavior is in fact motivated by self-interest . . . People in general have quite bad moral character, but most of them haven’t done anything particularly bad because they haven’t had the opportunity . . .
This seems like a good reason to discount our estimates of what kinds of assistance we owe them.

The question I want to ask is whether this argument gives us a (strong) reason to oppose social insurance and progressive taxation, the main institutions that capitalist democracies use to assist those who find themselves in difficult circumstances.  (If Brennan is merely claiming that our obligation to help others on an individual basis is not as strong as we tend to think, I also disagree, but this is a less interesting and less important claim.)

Brennan assumes that people have fixed, immutable moral characters, and that their characters are either good or bad.  To use his terminology, people are either “saints” or “scoundrels”.  Scoundrels will act terribly when circumstances permit; saints always act decently towards others.  Brennan assumes that most people (“nearly all”) are scoundrels, and that the obligation of saints to help scoundrels is limited.  Note that Brennan is viewing morality entirely from the point of view of saints, even though he claims that most of us are scoundrels.

We could certainly push back on Brennan’s model and his empirical claims, but let’s run with them and see what happens.

Imagine a group of scoundrels who live together in a representative democracy with a market-based economy.  Even though everyone is a scoundrel, the society functions reasonably well because informal norms, social pressure, and the threat of civil and criminal sanctions all encourage people to behave decently towards one another.  Most people are vaguely aware of the fact that they might commit atrocities under less favorable circumstances, when they bother to reflect on such things, but they nonetheless come to think of themselves as imperfect but morally decent people.  This kind of grandiose moral self-delusion is, sadly, all too typical of scoundrels.

Suppose that the scoundrels want to implement a system of social insurance and progressive taxation.  They support these welfare state institutions for three reasons.  First, they value social insurance and progressive taxation for self-interested reasons.  Poor and lower-income people directly benefit from income support and related programs, and most people want social insurance because unregulated markets leave people exposed to a great deal of risk.  Second, people are motivated to live with others on terms that everyone can accept, and they believe that this means we cannot just say “tough luck, not our fault” to people who end up poor, sick, or otherwise disadvantaged.  Instead, the government must ensure that the prosperity created by markets is widely shared.  Third, history suggests that scoundrels who live in strong welfare states are less likely to support authoritarian populists when they are dissatisfied with social or economic conditions.  Since people are at least vaguely aware that many people are scoundrels, this gives them a good reason to support a strong welfare state.

Now suppose one person – let’s call him Jason – objects to the welfare state on libertarian grounds.  Jason goes around haranguing people about self-ownership, the Lockean proviso, solitary individuals stealing corn from each other in a state of nature, and similarly obscure philosophical matters, but no one finds his libertarian arguments compelling.  So Jason changes his approach, and argues that the case for a welfare state is weakened because most people are scoundrels.  In particular, Jason claims that he is a saint, and that he does not want to be taxed to provide assistance to other people, because they are all very bad moral scoundrels and as a result he, as a morally good person, does not have any obligation to help them. 

No doubt this is a very powerful argument – poor Jason! (sad emoji) – but it does seem to suffer from a few minor difficulties.

For one thing, the scoundrels all agree that they have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate.  And this seems to be entirely plausible.  Imperfect people may struggle with morality more than saints like Jason, but if morality exists it presumably applies to scoundrels as well as saints.  Saint Jason has simply not addressed this point; despite his saintliness he is viewing morality solely from the point of view of saints.  No doubt this is just a saintly oversight.

Second, saints have reasons to support welfare state policies.  People in a society of saints would have both self-interested and moral reasons to support social insurance and progressive taxation, just like people in a society of scoundrels.  Saint Jason does not want to pay taxes because the taxes will go to help scoundrels, but the taxes from the scoundrels will be used to help Saint Jason.  So it’s not at all clear that Saint Jason has a reasonable objection to the welfare state merely based on the “fact” that most people are scoundrels.  Of course, Saint Jason may object to paying taxes because he is a libertarian, but remember the question we are asking is whether Brennan has discovered a compelling non-libertarian argument against the welfare state.

Finally, Saint Jason believes that he should not be forced to pay taxes because he is a saint, but how can the rest of us know that Jason is a saint?  We can’t tell Jason is a saint from his behavior, because most people are scoundrels but behave decently to avoid social and legal sanctions.  Suppose instead that Saint Jason tells us that he is a saint.  Why would we believe this?  Perhaps “Saint” Jason is just a frustrated libertarian who is pretending to be a saint, since no one will listen to his arguments about the sanctity of property rights.  In fact, if we take Brennan’s claims about human nature at face value, our strong prior belief would be that Saint Jason is a scoundrel, and having Saint Jason tell us that he is a Saint would not lead us to update our priors at all.

[A fun aside:  Brennan actually tells us that he is a saint!  I kid you not.  He cites his own saintliness as a reason we should trust him to tell us how saints would interpret the situations he describes:  “(As a saint myself, I can tell you that’s what the saint would say.)”  Is this a joke gone badly awry?  I can’t tell.]

We could have even more fun looking at other implications of Brennan’s argument and the “evidence” he presents about human nature.  But why bother?