Free to Choose
Michael Sandel: When we finished last time, we were looking at John Stuart Mill's attempt to reply to the critics of Bentham's utilitarianism. In his book Utilitarianism, Mill tries to show that critics to the contrary it is possible, within the utilitarian framework, to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures. It is possible to make qualitative distinctions of worth, and we tested that idea with the Simpsons and the Shakespeare excerpts. And the results of our experiment seem to call into question Mills distinction, because a great many of you reported that you prefer The Simpsons, but that you still consider Shakespeare to be the higher or the worthier pleasure. That's the dilemma with which our experiment confronts Mill. What about Mill's attempt to account for the specially weighty character of individual rights in justice. In chapter five of Utilitarianism, he wants to say that individual rights are worthy of special respect. In fact he goes so far as to say that justice is the most sacred part and the most incomparably binding part of morality. But the same challenge could be put to this part of Mill’s defense. Why is justice the chief part in the most binding part of our morality? Well he says because in the long run if we do justice and if we respect rights society as a whole will be better off in the long run. Well what about that? What if we have a case where making an exception in violating individual rights actually will make people better off in the long run. Is it all right then to use people? And there's a further objection that could be raised against Mill’s case for justice and rights, supposed the utilitarian calculus, in the long run, works out as he says it will, such that respecting people's rights is a way of making everybody better off in the long run. Is that the right reason? Is that the only reason to respect people? If the doctor goes in and yanks the organs from the healthy patient who came in for a check-up to save five lives, there would be adverse effects in long run. Eventually people would learn about this and would stop going in for checkups. Is it the right reason? Is the only reason that you, as a doctor won't yank out the organs of the healthy patient? That you think, well if I use him in this way, in the long run more lives will be lost? Or is there another reason having to do with intrinsic respect for the person as an individual? And that reason matters, and it's not so clear that even Mill's utilitarianism can take account of it. Fully to examine these two worries or objections to Mill's defense, we need to do, we need to push further. We need, we need to ask, in the case of higher or worthier pleasures are their theories of the good life that can provide independent moral standards for the worth of pleasures? If so what do they look like? That's one question. In the case of justice and rights, if we suspect that Mill is implicitly leaning on notions of human dignity or respect for person that are not strictly speaking utilitarian, we need to look to see whether there are some stronger theories of rights that can explain the intuition, which even Mill shares, the intuition that the reason for respecting individuals and not using them goes beyond even utility in the long run. Today we turn to one of those strong theories of rights. Strong theories of rights say individuals matter, not just as instruments to be used for a larger social purpose, but for the sake of maximizing utility, individuals are separate beings with separate lives worthy of respect. And so it's a mistake, according to strong theories of rights, it's a mistake to think about justice or law by just adding up preferences and values. The strong rights theory we turn to today is libertarianism. Libertarianism takes individual rights seriously. It's called libertarian because it says the fundamental individual right is the right to liberty. Precisely because we are separate individual beings, we're not available to any use that the society might desire or devise. Precisely because we are individual separate human beings, we have a fundamental right to liberty. And that means, a right to choose freely to live our lives as we please, provided we respect other people's rights to do the same. That's the fundamental idea. Robert Nozick, one of the libertarian philosophers we read for this course puts it this way, "Individuals have rights. So strong and far-reaching are these rights, that they raise the question of what if anything the state may do? So what does libertarianism say about the role of government or of the state? Well there are three things that most modern states do, that on the libertarian theory of rights, are illegitimate; are unjust. One of them is paternalist legislation. That's passing laws that protect people from themselves. Seat-belt laws for example, or motorcycle helmet laws. The of libertarian says it may be good thing if people wear seat belts, but that should be up to them, and the state, the government has no business coercing them, us to wear seat-belts by law. It's coercion so no paternalist legislation, number one. Number two, no morals legislation. Many laws try to promote the virtue of citizens, or try to give expression to the moral values of the society as a whole. Libertarians say that's also a violation of the right to liberty. Take the example of, well a classic example of legislation offered in the name of promoting morality, traditionally, have been laws that prevent sexual intimacy between gays and lesbians. The libertarian says, "Nobody else is harmed, nobody else's rights are violated, so the state should get out of the business entirely of trying to promote virtue or to enact morals legislation. And the third kind of law or policy that is ruled out on the libertarian philosophy is any taxation or other policy that serves the purpose of redistributing income or wealth from the rich to the poor. Redistribution is a kind, if you think about it, says the libertarian, is a kind of coercion. What it amounts to is theft by the state or by the majority, if we are talking about a democracy, from people who happen to do very well and earned a lot of money. Now, Nozick. and other libertarians allow that there can be a minimal state that taxes people for the sake of what everybody needs, the national defense, police force, judicial system to enforce contracts and property rights, but that's it. Now I want to get your reactions to this third feature of the libertarian view. I want to see who among you agree with that idea and who disagree and why. And just to make it concrete, and to see what's at stake, consider the distribution of wealth in the United States. The United States is among the most inegalitarian societies, as far as the distribution of wealth, of all the advanced democracies. Now is this just or unjust? Well what is the libertarian say? Libertarian says you can't know just from the facts I've just given you. You can't know whether that distribution is just or unjust. You can't know just by looking at a pattern or a distribution or a result whether it's just or unjust. You have to know how it came to be. You can't just look at the end state or the result. You have to look at two principles. The first he calls justice and acquisition or in initial holdings. And what that means, simply, is did people get the things they used to make their money fairly. So we need to know, was there justice in the initial holdings? Did they steal the land or the factory or the goods that enabled them to make all that money? If not, if they were entitled to whatever it was enabled them to gather the wealth, the first principle is met. The second principle is, did the distribution arise from the operation of free consent, people buying and trading on the market? As you can see, the libertarian idea of justice corresponds to a free-market conception of justice. Provided people got what they used fairly, didn't steal it, and provided the distribution results from the free choice of individuals buying and selling things, the distribution is just. And if not, it's unjust. So let's, in order to fix ideas for this discussion, take an actual example. Who's the wealthiest person in the United States, wealthiest person in the world? Bill Gates. It is. That's right. Here he is. You'd be happy too. Now, what's his net worth? Anybody have any idea? That's a big number. During the Clinton years remembered there was a controversy? Donors, big campaign contributors were invited to stay overnight in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House. I think of you contributed $25,000 or above, someone figured out at the median contribution that got you invited to stay a night in the Lincoln bedroom, Bill Gates could afford to stay in the Lincoln bedroom every night for the next 66,000 years. Somebody else figured out, how much does he get paid on an hourly basis? And so they figured out, since he began Microsoft, suppose he worked, what 14 hours per day, reasonable guess, and you calculate this net wealth, it turns out that his rate of pay is over $150, not per hour, not per minute, $150 more than $150 per second. Which means which means that if on his way to the office Gates noticed $100 bill on the street, it wouldn't be worth his time to stop and, and pick it up. Now most of you will say someone that wealthy surely we can tax them to meet the pressing needs of people who lack in education or lack enough to eat or lack decent housing. They need it more than he does. And if you are a utilitarian, what would you do? What tax policy would you have? You'd redistribute in a flash wouldn't you? Because you would know, being a good utilitarian, that taking some, a small amount, he scarcely going to noticed it but it will make a huge improvement in the lives and in the welfare of those at the bottom. But remember, the libertarian theory says we can’t just add up and aggregate preferences and satisfactions that way. We have to respect persons. And if he earned that money fairly without violating anybody else's rights, in accordance with two principals of justice in acquisition and justice in transfer, then it would be wrong. It would be a form of coercion to take it away. Michael Jordan is not as wealthy as Bill Gates, but he did pretty well for himself. You want to see Michael Jordan? There he is. His income alone in one year was $31 million and then he made another $47 million in endorsements for Nike and other companies. So his income was, in one year, 78 million. To require him to pay, let's say a third of his earnings to the government to support good causes like food and health care and housing education for the poor. That's coercion. That's unjust. That violates his rights. And that's why redistribution is wrong. Now, how many agree with that argument? Agree with the libertarian argument that redistribution for the sake of trying to help the poor is wrong. And how many disagree with that argument? Alright, let's begin with those who disagree. What's wrong with the libertarian case against redistribution? Yes.
Student: I think these people like Michael Jordan have received, umm, we're talking working within a society, and they received a larger, umm, gift from the society and they have a larger obligation in return, ah, to give that through redistribution. You know, you can say that Michael Jordan may work just as hard as someone who works, umm, you know, doing the laundry 12 hours, 14 hours a day, but he's receiving more. Umm, I don't think it's fair to say that, you know, it's all on him, on his inherent, you know, hard work.
Michael Sandel: Alright, but let's year from defenders of libertarianism. Why would it be wrong in principle to tax the rich to help the poor. Go ahead.
Joe: My name's Joe and I collect skateboards. I've since bought a hundred skateboards. I live in a society of 100 people. I'm the only one with skateboards . Suddenly everyone decides they want a skateboard. They come into my house they take my, they take ninety-nine of my skateboards. I think that is unjust. Now I think in certain circumstances it becomes necessary to overlook that unjustice, perhaps condone unjustice as in the case of the cabin boy being killed for food. If people on the verge of dying, perhaps is it necessary to overlook that unjustice, but I think it's important to keep in mind that we're still committing unjustice by taking people's belongings or assets.
Michael Sandel: Are you saying that taxing Michael Jordan, say at 33% tax rate, for good causes, to feed the hungry, is theft?
Joe: I think it's unjust. Yes I do believe it's theft, but perhaps it is necessary to condone that theft.
Michael Sandel: But it's theft.
Michael Sandel: Why is it theft, Joe?
Michael Sandel: Why is it like the, your collection of skateboards?
Joe: It's theft because, or at least in my opinion, and by the libertarian opinion, he earned that money fairly, umm, and it belongs to him, and so to take it from him is, by definition, theft.
Michael Sandel: Alright, let's hear if there's a, who wants to reply to Joe? Yes. Go ahead.
Student: I don't think this is necessarily a case in which you have 99 skateboards and the government, or you have 100 skateboards and the government’s taking 99 of them, it's like you have more skateboards than there are days in a year. You have more skateboards that you are going to be able to use in your entire lifetime, and the government is taking part of those. And I think that if you're operating in a society in which the government's, in which the government doesn't redistribute wealth, that that allows for people to amass so much wealth that people who haven't started from this very, the equal footing in our hypothetical situation, that doesn't exist in our real society, get undercut for the rest of their lives.
Michael Sandel: So you're worried that if there is in some degree of redistribution, if some are left at the bottom, there will be no genuine equality of opportunity. Alright. The idea that taxation is theft, Nozick takes that point one step further. He agrees that it's theft. He's more demanding than Joe. Joe says it is theft. Maybe in an extreme case it's justified. Maybe a parent is justified in stealing a loaf of bread to feed his or her hungry family. So Joe is a, what would you call yourself, a compassionate quasi-libertarian? Nozick says, if you think about it, taxation amounts to the taking of earnings. In other words it means taking the fruits of my labor. But if the state has the right to take my earnings or the fruits of my labor, isn't that morally the same, as according to the state, the right to claim a portion of my labor? So taxation, actually, is morally equivalent to forced labor because forced labor involves the taking of my, my leisure, my time, my efforts, just as taxation takes the earnings that I make with my labor. And so, for Nozick and for the libertarians, taxation for redistribution is theft, as Joe says, but not only theft. It's morally equivalent to laying claim to certain hours of a person’s life and labor. And so, it's morally equivalent to forced labor. If the state has a right to claim the fruits of my labor, that implies that it really has an, an entitlement to my labor itself. And what is forced labor? Forced labor, Nozick points out, is what? Is slavery. Because, if I don't have the right, the sole right to my own labor, then, that's really to say that the government or the political community is a part owner in me. And what does it mean for the state to be a part owner in me. If you think about it, it means that I am a slave, that I don't own myself. So what this line of reasoning brings us to is the fundamental principle that underlies the libertarian case for rights. What is that principle? It's the idea that I own myself. It's the idea of self possession. If you want to take rights seriously, if you don't want to just regard people as collections of preferences, the fundamental moral idea to which you will be led is the idea that we are the owners or the proprietors of our own person. And that's why utilitarianism goes wrong. And that's why it's wrong to yank the organs from that healthy patient. You are acting as if that patient belongs to you or the community, but we belong to ourselves. And that's the same reason that is wrong to make laws to protect us from ourselves, or to tell us how to live, to tell us what virtues we should be governed by, and that's also why it's wrong to tax the rich to help the poor, even for good causes. Even to help those who were displaced by the hurricane Katrina. Ask them to give charity. But if you tax them, it's like forcing them to labor. Could you tell Michael Jordan he has to skip the next week's games and go down to help the people displaced by hurricane Katrina? Morally it's the same. So the stakes are very high. So far we've heard some objections to the libertarian argument, but if you want to reject it, you have to break into this chain of reasoning, which goes, taking my earnings is like taking my labor, but taking my labor is making me a slave. And if you disagree with that, you must believe in principle of self possession. Those who disagree gather your objections, and we'll begin with the next time.
Michael Sandel: Anyone like to take that point? Yes.
Victoria: Umm, I feel like, when you live in a society, you give up that right. I mean, technically, if I want to personally go out and kill someone because they offend me, that is self-possession. Because I live in a society, I cannot do that.
Michael Sandel: Victoria, are you questioning the fundamental premise of self-possession?
Victoria: Yes. I think that you don't really have self possession if you choose to live in a society because you cannot just discount the people around you.
Who Owns Me?
Michael Sandel: We were talking last time about libertarianism. I want to go back to the arguments for and against the redistribution of income. But before we do that, just one word about the minimal state. Milton Friedman, the libertarian economist, he points out that many of the functions that we take for granted as properly belonging to government, don't. They are paternalist. One example he gives is Social Security. He says it's a good idea for people to save for their retirement during their earning years, but it's wrong, it's a violation of people's liberty, for the government to force everyone, whether they want to or not, to put aside some earnings today for the sake of their retirement. If people want to take the chance, or people want to live big today and poor retirement, that should be their choice. They should be free to make those judgments and take those risks. So even Social Security would still be at odds with the minimal state that Milton Friedman argued for. It's sometimes thought that collective goods like police protection and fire protection will inevitably create the problem of free riders unless they’re publicly provided, but there are ways to prevent free riders, there are ways to restrict even seemingly collective goods like fire protection. I read an article a while back about a private fire company. This Saelam Fire Corporation in Arkansas. You can sign up with the Saelam Fire Corporation, pay a yearly subscription fee, and if your house catches on fire, they will come and put out the fire. But they won't put out everybody's fire. They will only put it out if it's a fire in the home of a subscriber or if it starts to spread and to threaten the home of a subscriber. The newspaper article told the story of a homeowner who have subscribed to this company in the past, but failed to renew his subscription. His house caught on fire, the Saelem Fire Corporation showed up with its trucks and watch the house burn, just making sure that it didn't spread. The fire chief was asked, well he wasn't exactly the fire chief, I guess he was the CEO, he was asked, "How can you stand by with fire equipment and allow a person's home to burn?" He replied, "Once we verified there was no danger to a member's property, we had no choice but to back off according to our rules. If we responded to all fires," he said, "there would be no incentive to subscribe." The home owner in this case tried to renew his subscription at the scene of the fire, but the head of the company refused. "You can't wreck your car," he said, "and then buy insurance for it later." So, even public goods that we take for granted as being within the proper province of government, can, many of them, in principle, be isolated, made exclusive to those who pay. That's all to do with the question of collective goods and the libertarians' injunction against paternalism. But let's go back now to the arguments about redistribution. Now, underlying the libertarians’ case for the minimal state is a worry about coercion, but what's wrong with coercion? The libertarian offers this answer. To coerce someone, to use some person for the sake of the general welfare is wrong because it calls into question the fundamental fact that we own ourselves. The fundamental moral fact of self possession or self ownership. The libertarians' argument against redistribution begins with this fundamental idea that we own ourselves. No success. That if the society as a whole can go to Bill Gates or go to Michael Jordan and tax away a portion of their wealth, what the society is really asserting is a collective property right in Bill Gates or in Michael Jordan, and that violates the fundamental principle that we belong to ourselves. Now, we've already heard a number of objections to the libertarian argument. What I would like to do today is to give the libertarians among us a chance to answer the objections that have been raised. And some have been, some have already identified themselves and have agreed to come and make the case for libertarianism, to reply to the objections that have been raised. So raise your hand if you are among the libertarians whose prepared to stand up for the theory and respond to the objections. You are?
Alex: Ah, Alex Harris.
Michael Sandel: Alex Harris, who's been a, who's been a star on the web blog. Alright Alex come, here, stand, come, well we'll create a libertarian corner over here. And, ah, who else, other libertarians who will join? What's your name?
John: John Sheffield.
Michael Sandel: John?
Michael Sandel: John Sheffield. Who else wants to join? Other brave Libertarians who are prepared to take on, yes, what's your name?
Julia: Julia Roto.
Michael Sandel: Julia Roto. Come, join us over their. Now while the, while team libertarian, Julia, John, Alex, while, while team libertarian is gathering over there, let me just summarize the main objections that I've heard in class and on the web site. Objection number one, and here, I'll come down, too. I want to talk to team libertarian over here. So objection number one is that the poor need the money more. That's an obvious objection. A lot more than, thanks, than do Bill Gates and Michael Jordan. Objection number two, it's not really slavery to tax because, at least in a democratic society, it's not a slaveholder, it's, it's congress. It's a democratic; you're smiling Alex, already. You're confident you can reply to all of these. So taxation by consent of the governed is not coerced. Third, some people have said don't the successful, like Gates, owe a debt to society for their success, that they repay by paying taxes. Who, who wants to respond to the first one, the poor need the money more. Alright, and you're?
John: I'm John.
Michael Sandel: John. Alright, John, what's, yeah, here I'll hold it.
John: Ah, the poor need the money more, that's quite obvious. Umm, I could use the money, you know. I, I certainly wouldn't mind if Bill Gates gave me one million dollars. I mean, I'd take a thousand, but at some point, you have to understand that the benefits of redistribution of wealth don't justify the initial violation of the property right. If you look at the argument, the poor need the money more, at no point in that argument do you contradict the fact that we've extrapolated from, umm, the agreed-upon principles that people own themselves. We've extrapolated that people have property rights. And so whether or not it would be a good thing, or nice thing, or even a necessary thing for the survival of some people, we don't see that justifies the violation of the right that we've logically extrapolated.
Michael Sandel: Good, and so...
John: And that also, I mean, there still exists this institution of, like, individual philanthropy, Milton Freidman makes this argument,
Michael Sandel: Alright. So Bill Gates can give to charity if he wants to, but it would still be wrong to coerce it to meet the needs of the poor. Are the two of you happy with that apply? Anything to, alright, Julia go-ahead.
Julia: I think, Julia, yes, umm, I think I could also add, I guess like a whole, that, umm, there's a difference between needing something and deserving something. I mean in an ideal society, everyone's needs would be met, but here we are arguing what do we deserve as a society.
Michael Sandel: And the poor don't deserve, don't deserve the benefits that would flow from taxing Michael Jordan to help them?
Julia: Based on what we've come up with here, I don't think you deserve something like that.
Michael Sandel: Alright. Let me, let me push you a little bit on that Julia. The victims of hurricane Katrina are in desperate need of help. Would you say that they don't deserve help that would come from the federal government through taxation?
Julia: Umm, OK. That's a difficult question. Umm, I think this is a case where they need help not deserve it. But, I think again, if you hit a certain level of requirements, to meet sustenance, you're going to need help. Like if you don't have food or a place to live, that the case of need.
Michael Sandel: So need is one thing and deserve is another.
Michael Sandel: Alright. Who would like to reply? Yes.
Rauel: Going back to the first point, that he made about proper rights of the individual, the property rights are established and enforced by the government, which is a democratic government, and we have representatives who enforce those rights. If you live in a society that operates under those rules, then it should be up to the government, umm, to decide how, ah, those resources that come down from taxation are distributed because it is through the consent of the government. If you disagree with it, you don't have to live in that society or that????
Michael Sandel: Alright, good so, and tell me your name.
Michael Sandel: Rauel is pointing out, actually Rauel is invoking point number two, if the taxation is by the consent of the governed, it's not coerced, and it’s legitimate. Bill Gates and Michael Jordan are citizens of United States, they get to vote for Congress, and they get to vote their policy convictions just like everybody else. Who would like to take that one on? John?
John: Umm, basically what the Libertarians are, umm, objecting to in this case is, the middle 80 percent deciding what the top 10 percent are doing the bottom 10 percent.
Michael Sandel: But wait, wait, wait, wait. John, majority, don't you believe in democracy?
John: Well, right, but...
Michael Sandel: Don't you believe in, what'd you say, 80 percent, 10 percent majority, majority rule is what? The majority.
John: Exactly, but...
Michael Sandel: In a democracy. Aren't you for democracy?
John: Yes I'm for democracy, but, hang on, hang on, hang on, democracy and mob rule aren't the same thing.
Michael Sandel: Mob rule.
John: Mob rule. Exactly.
Raoul: In a, in an open society you have a recourse to address that through your representatives. And if the majority of the consent of those who are governed doesn't agree with you, then you know you, you're treasonous to society. And you have to operate under what the majority of society concludes.
Michael Sandel: Alright, Alex on democracy. Democracy, what about that?
Alex: The fact that I have one five hundred thousandth of a vote for one representative in Congress, ah, is not the same as my having the ability to decide for myself how to use my property rights. I’m a drop in the bucket, and, you know while...
Michael Sandel: You might, you might lose the vote.
Michael Sandel: And it might take.
Alex: And I will. I don't have decision right now of whether or not to pay taxes. If I don't I get locked in jail or they tell me to get out of the country.
Michael Sandel: But Alex. Alex. Let me make a, ah, small case for democracy, and see what you would say. Why can't you, we live in a democratic society with freedom of speech. Why can't you take to the hustings, persuade your fellow citizens that taxation is unjust and try to get a majority?
Alex: I don't think the people should be, should have to convince 280 million people, others, simply in order to exercise their own rights in order to not have their self-ownership violated. I think people should be able to do that without having to convince 280 million people.
Michael Sandel: Does that mean you are against democracy as a whole?
Alex: Ah, I, no. I just believe in a limited form of democracy whereby we have a constitution that severely limits the scope of what decisions can be made democratically.
Michael Sandel: Alright. So, so you're saying that democracy is fine, except where fundamental rights are involved. And I think you could win if, you're going on the hustings, let me add one element to the argument you might make. Maybe you could say put aside the economic debates, taxation. Suppose the individual right to religious liberty were at stake. Then, Alex, you could say on the hustings, surely you would all agree that we shouldn't put the right to individual liberty up to a vote.
Alex: Ah, yeah. That's exactly right. Umm, and that's why we have, ah, constitutional amendments, and we make it so hard to amend our constitution.
Michael Sandel: So you would say that the right to private property, the right of Michael Jordan to keep all the money he makes, at least to protect it from redistribution, is the same kind of right with the same kind of weight as the right to freedom of speech, the right to religious liberty, rights that should trump what the majority wants.
Alex: Absolutely. The reason that we have the right to free speech is because we have a right to own ourselves, to exercise our voice, ah, in any way that we choose.
Michael Sandel: Alright. Good. Alright. So, there we, alright, who would like to respond to that argument about democracy being, O, OK, up there. Stand up.
Anna: Umm, I think comparing religion, economics, it’s not the same thing. The reason why Bill Gates is able to make so much money is 'cause we live in an economically and socially stable society, and if the government didn't provide for the poorest ten percent, as you say, umm, through taxation, then we would need more money for police to prevent crime, and so, either way, like, there would be more taxes taken away to provide what you guys call, like, the, the necessary things. That the government provides.
Michael Sandel: What's your name?
Michael Sandel: Anna, let me ask you this, why is the fundamental right to religious liberty different from the right Alex asserts as a fundamental right to private property and to keep what I earn. What's the difference between the two?
Anna: Because you wouldn't have, umm, you wouldn't be able to make money, you wouldn't be able to own property if there wasn't a socially, like, if society wasn't stable. And that's completely different from religion, that's like something, something personal that you can practice on your own in your own home. Or like me practicing, like, my religion is not going to affect the next person, but if I'm poor and I'm desperate, umm, like, I might commit a crime to feed my family. And that can affect others.
Michael Sandel: OK. Good. Thank you. Would it be wrong for someone to steal a loaf of bread to feed, ah, his starving family? Is that wrong?
Alex: I believe that it is. Ah, this...
Michael Sandel: Alright, let's, ah, let's take a quick poll of the, the three of you. It is, you say yes it is wrong.
John: It violates property rights. It's wrong.
Michael Sandel: Even to save a starving family?
John: I mean, there are, there are definitely other ways around that. And by justifying, no, hang on, hang on, before you laugh at me, umm, that didn't work, before, before justifying the, the act of stealing, you have to look at violating the right that we've already agreed exists, the right of self-possession and the possession of, I mean, your own things. We agree on property rights.
Michael Sandel: Alright, we agree it's stealing, so property rights is not the issue.
John: Alright, but...
Michael Sandel: So why is wrong to steal even to feed your starving family?
John: Sort of the, the original argument, ah, I made in the very, in the very first question you asked, the benefits of an action don't justify, don't make the action just.
Michael Sandel: Do you want, what, what would you say Julia? Is it alright to steal a loaf of bread to feed a starving family or to steal a drug that your child needs, needs to survive?
Julia: I think, I am OK with that, honestly. Even from a libertarian standpoint, I think that, OK saying that you can just take money arbitrarily from people who have a lot to go to this pool of people who need it, but you have an individual who is acting on their own behalf to kind of save themselves. I mean, I think you said they, from the idea of, like, self-possession, they are also in charge of protecting themselves and keeping themselves alive. So therefore, even from a libertarian standpoint, that might be OK.
Michael Sandel: Alright, that's good. That's good. Alright, what about, what about number three up here, isn't it the case that the successful, the wealthy owe a debt. They didn't do that all by themselves, they had to cooperate with other people. That they, they owe a debt to society and that that's expressed in taxation. You want to take that on Julia?
Julia: OK. This one, umm, I believe that there is not a debt to society in a sense that how did these people become wealthy, they did something that society valued highly. Since that, society has already been providing for that. Ah, of anything, I think that it's, everything’s cancelled out. They provided a service to society, and society responded by, somehow they got their wealth.
Michael Sandel: Well that, so be concrete. In the case of Michael Jordan, some, I mean to illustrate your point, there were people who helped him to make the money, the teammates, the coach, people who taught him how to play, but they, but you're saying they've all been paid for their services.
Julia: Exactly. And society derived a lot of benefit and pleasure from watching Michael Jordan play. Umm, I think that that's how he paid his debt to society.
Michael Sandel: Alright. Good. Who would, ah, anyone like to take up that point? Yes.
Victoria: Umm, I think that there's a problem here with, that we're assuming that a person has self-possession when the live in a society. I feel like, when you live in a society you give up that right. I mean technically, if I want to personally go out and kill someone, because they offend me, that is self-possession. Because I live in a society, I cannot do that. I think it's kind of equivalent to say, because I have more money, I have resources that can save people's lives, is it not OK for the government to take that away from me? It's self-possession only to a certain extent because I'm living in a society where I have to take account of people around me.
Michael Sandel: So are you question, what's your name?
Michael Sandel: Victoria, are you questioning the fundamental premise of self-possession?
Victoria: Yes. I think that you don't really have self possession if you choose to live in a society because you cannot just discount the people around you.
Michael Sandel: Alright, I want to quickly get the response of, umm, the libertarian team to the last point. The last point builds on, well maybe it builds on Victoria's suggestion that we don't own ourselves, because it says that Bill Gates is wealthy. That Michael Jordan makes a huge income. Isn't wholly their own doing, it's the product of a lot of luck. And so we can't claim that they morally deserve all the money they make. Who wants to reply to that? Alex.
Alex: Ah, you certainly could make the case that, umm, it is not, ah, that their wealth is not appropriate to the goodness in their hearts, but that's not really the morally relevant issue. The point is that they have received, ah, what they have through the free exchange of people who have given them, umm, their holdings, usually in exchange for providing some other service.
Michael Sandel: Good enough. Ah, I want to try to try to sum up what we've learned from this discussion, but first let's thank John, Alex and Julia for an excellent, a really wonderful job. Toward the end of the discussion just now, Victoria challenged the premise of this line of reasoning, this libertarian logic. Maybe, she suggested we don't own ourselves after all. If you reject the libertarian case against redistribution there would seem to be an incentive to break into the libertarian line of reasoning at the earliest, at the most modest level, which is why a lot of people disputed that taxation is morally equivalent to forced labor. But what about the big claim, the premise, the big idea underlying the libertarian argument. Is it true that we own ourselves or can we do without that idea, and still avoid what libertarians want to avoid, creating a society and an account of justice where some people can be just used for the sake of other people's welfare, or even for the sake of the general good. Libertarians combat the utilitarian idea of using people as means for the collective happiness by saying the way to put a stop to that utilitarian logic of using persons, is to resort to the intuitively powerful idea that we are the proprietors of our own person as Alex and Julia and John and Robert Nozick. What are the consequences for a theory of justice and an account of rights of calling into question the idea of self possession? Does it mean that we’re back to utilitarianism, and using people, and aggregating preferences, and pushing the fat man off the bridge? Nozick doesn't, himself, fully develop the idea of self-possession, he borrows it from an earlier philosopher, John Locke. John Locke accounted for the rise of private property, from the state of nature, by a chain of reasoning very similar to the one Nozick and the libertarians use. John Locke said, "private property arises because when we mix our labor with things, unowned things, we come to acquire a property right in those things." And the reason the reason is that we own our own labor. And the reason for that, we are the proprietors, the owners of our own person. And so in order to examine the moral force of the libertarian claim that we own ourselves, we need to turn to the English political philosopher John Locke and examine his account of private property and self ownership, and that's what we’ll do next time.
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