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October 19, 2010


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Thanks David, that's helpful. I think I see this more clearly now.

Ok, so it might have been wrong to say that seeking a benefit imposing a threat is the same as diverting a threat to impose a threat.

I agree that whether either thing is permissible might depend on the value of one's goals (the significance of the extant threat or the importance of the goal that one will achieve).

There are two potential differences here to focus on. One is the instigating/ diverting distinction. There might be an important moral difference between diverting an extant threat and initiating a threat to avert another threat that one faces.

In familiar strategic bomber cases, though, we are not diverting a threat, but instigating in the course of averting a distinct threat. And yet most people believe that it is sometimes permissible to harm civilians as a side-effect in war. So the instigating/diverting distinction, even if it is significant, can't be determinative.

The other distinction is between averting a threat and pursuing a benefit. In strategic bomber we are averting a threat, but in the pollution case we are securing a benefit, we might think, and perhaps this is significant. I'm not sure how easy it is to make this distinction secure (what is the baseline used to distinguish threats from benefits?).

Suppose that there is some way to make this distinction secure. Your attack on libertarianism would be justified if libertarians endorse the view that it is always wrong to risk infringing rights to secure a benefit. But I still don't see why they need to be committed to that. As your post implies, it is not a plausible view. But why can't libertarians simply resist it whilst continuing to endorse their basic commitments?

Perhaps we need to know more about what libertarians are committed to.

Some might be committed only to the idea that there are no enforceable duties to rescue. So it is always wrong to use my body, talents or property for the sake of others.

Others might take the more extreme view that it is never permissible to infringe my rights to pursue good consequences. The more extreme view is clearly implausible as your example shows. But a libertarian might endorse the weaker first view (still not an attractive view, but more plausible than the extreme view).


I like the suggestion that there might be a normative difference between creating a threat to counter a threat and creating a threat to secure a gain. This will put more philosophical pressure on the difference between gains and losses, I suppose, and I am not confident that distinction will hold up well, but still I think it an interesting direction to try. I think I find everything you said above plausible.

Thanks David. That's clarified things to me.

I think that there are three potential differences between the standard trolley case and your Pollution case.

1) ST involves harm as a side-effect. Pollution involves risk of harm as a side-effect.
2) ST involves diverting a threat. Pollution involves instigating a threat.
3) The aim in ST is to avert a threat. The aim in Pollution is to secure a benefit.

In an earlier post I tried to show that 1) makes Pollution easier to justify than ST
2) may be morally salient, but few people will see it as decisive. For example, in standard Strategic Bomber cases the bomber instigates rather than diverts a threat. Most people think it permissible to harm civilians proportionally in those cases.
3) is trickier. The difference between securing a benefit and averting a threat requires us to set a baseline, and it is not obvious how to do this in a non-arbitrary way. Suppose that it can. Pollution nevertheless shows that the distinction is not decisive either.
The question is whether libertarians need reject these judgements. An extreme form of libertarianism might claim that it is never permissible to infringe rights either to avert a threat or to secure a benefit. Pollution shows that that is not a plausible view. A less extreme form of libertarianism (which I also reject) claims only that there is no enforceable duty to help others, but permits side-effect harms to avert threats or to secure benefits. I take the central fundamental claim of libertarians to be the lack of an enforceable duty to rescue. The best challenge to their view shows that there is such an enforceable duty.


I have been stunned to see how exactly Nozick anticipated the sorts of concerns I initially expressed, down to the gun with many, many chambers, etc. I am also surprised at how happily Nozick allows that things like pollution do violate rights and yet that the cases where we should permit such violations are those in which the social benefits of allowing such pollution outweigh the costs. (p. 79-80) He also happily allows that “it might be decided that mining or running trains is sufficiently valuable to be allowed, even though each presents risks to the passerby no less than compulsory Russian roulette with one bullet and n chambers (with n set appropriately), which is prohibited because it is insufficiently valuable.” (p. 74) This is exactly the sort of thing I assumed no proper libertarian would tolerate.

He also seems to assume nearly without comment that my property rights to x do not make it wrong for you to mess with x against my will so long as you compensate me so that I am not worse off. The only cases where he tolerates making something impermissible (that is, for him, punishing it beyond what is needed to compensate) are cases where compensation is unfeasible.

In essence, he seems to think that the only thing that property rights give me a right to is that others not diminish my well-being (or my own perceived level of well-being) in the way they use my property without my consent. So we would obviously need to start with a notion of what counts as a boundary crossing of my property rights. You clearly can think about my property in ways that diminish my well-being without a boundary crossing having occurred and I surely have no right that you not do so. So let’s say that my property right to my body means, among other things, that you cannot touch it without my consent. But the relevance for Nozick of what is and is not a boundary crossing is not that unconsented to boundary crossings are impermissible or impermissible unless the sky will fall. Rather the relevance of such a boundary crossing is merely that in those cases where you cross a boundary of mine without my consent (or presumably even against my will) you are obligated to compensate me so that I am not worse off for your having done so.

Or, one might even say that the central ethical question of whether it would be wrong prospectively to plan to violate my rights and compensate me is hardly on his radar. He wonders mainly about where it would be wise for society to attach extra penalties to certain actions beyond what is needed to compensate. But the rationale for attaching such penalties is never simply that the action impermissibly violated a person’s rights but rather always difficulties in compensating.

One very surprising aspect of Nozick that I also should have mentioned is that he rather explicitly allows that the key reason we should generally construe property rights such that we may permissibly plan to violate a right and then compensate the owner of the right rather than thinking people's rights forbids this and requires instead that we not mess with other people's property without their consent (unless the sky will fall) is that there will be more value created in a system with the former rights rather than the latter. That is, the overall value (and Nozick seems to care mainly about collective well-being) will be higher with rights of the former kind rather than of the latter. And for that reason, Nozick claims, those are the kind of rights we have.

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