Friday, April 28, 2017

Choice Magazine Book Review of: Mizzoni, John. Evolution and the foundations of ethics: evolutionary perspectives on contemporary normative and metaethical theories. Lexington Books, 2017

Reviewer: White, Ronald F. Mount St. Joseph University      

This ambitious, interdisciplinary work explains how evolutionary ethics might elucidate recent philosophical debates over alternative normative and metaethical theories. It is conveniently divided into three parts: Part I. Evolution and Metaethics (Error Theory, Expressivism, Moral Relativism, and Moral Realism); Part II. Evolution and Normative Ethics (Virtue Ethics, Natural Law, Social Contract, Deontology, Utilitarianism, and Care Ethics); and, III. Evolution and Ethics (Conclusion).  The predictable conclusion is that that evolutionary ethics neither confirms nor disconfirms any one metaethical or normative theory. Critics will observe that this book focuses more on ethical theories than evolutionary ethics; and that there’s an over-emphasis on 20th century evolutionary scientists such as Dawkins, Wilson, and Gould. Consequently, there’s much more to be said about state-of-the-art evolutionary ethics; most notably, evolutionary leadership theory, cultural evolution, and the “mismatch theory.” Despite the above limitations, this is a good, broad-based introduction to the interface between moral theory and evolutionary ethics. It provides and especially lucid summary of twentieth-century moral philosophy. It will be most useful for evolutionary scholars (and upper level/grad students) who have never studied ethical theories, in depth. For a more concise textbook in this genre, check out Scott James’ An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell: 2011).

Friday, April 21, 2017


In classical economics, the price a corporation charges its customers for a product is the total cost of investment plus normal profit. Stakeholder theorists often argue that some corporations that exorbitant prices are unfair to consumers. The question of price fairness, however, cannot be examined apart from a theory of justice.

Any unjust pricing structure violates the formal principle of justice which states that we are obligated to "treat equals equally and unequals unequally." In any economic relationship, an unfair price structure effects both the buyer and the seller. If either the buyer or the seller receives more than what is deserved, than the other naturally receives less. A fair price, then, is one in which both the buyer and the seller receive exactly what they deserve. This formal principle, however, does not provide insight into which individuals are equal and what it is that they are entitled to as a matter of fairness. Hence, the formal principle requires a material theory of distributive justice.

Any material theory of distributive justice, attempts to establish rules that govern the distribution of pains and pleasures connect the properties or characteristics of persons and the morally correct distribution of benefits under specific conditions. There are two broad kinds of material theories of justice patterned theories and unpatterned theories.

Patterned theories, which are usually espoused by stakeholder theorists, judge the fairness of a distribution procedure based on the distribution pattern evident in the end-state after the distribution actually takes place. Traditionally, material distributions based on utility, need, merit, and equality fall into this category. Today two patterned theories seem to dominate the literature: egalitarianism which espouses an equal distribution of at least some social goods in the end-state; and, utilitarianism which promotes distributions that maximize the public good in the end-state. Hence, the difference between these "patterned" theories is reflected in the kinds of end-state patterns that are deemed morally preferable.

Unpatterned theories of justice, such as defended by libertarianism, reject the notion that any particular distribution found in the end-state is any more fair any other distribution. Unpatterned theories, therefore, focus on the fairness of the procedures that produce an end-state. Hence, any end-state that is generated by a fair procedure is deemed just or fair, regardless of how the benefits and burdens are distributed in the end-state. Stockholder theorists tend to defend unpatterned theories. The idea is that fair distributions are determined by blind market forces and not by beneficent (or malevolent) persons acting as empowered distributors. If you believe that you are being short-changed by the designated distributer, you can claim that that person was being unfair. If things are distributed based on impersonal market forces, there is no one person to blame. Market-based distributions can be unfortunate, but not unfair.

Worldwide, this basic philosophical distinction between patterned and unpatterned distribution schemes has spawned two opposing political philosophies that relate to how governments might regulate corporations: the unpatterned free market model and the patterned regulatory model.


Stockholder theorists embrace the unpatterned free-market model of pricing of everything: products, services, labor etc. The unpatterned free market model espouses laissez faire economic theory, where government intervention in markets is justified only to the extent that it enhances competition. As long as the selling price is determined by free market forces, the price and the resulting end-state distribution is deemed fair. Hence, stock holder theorists who endorse this model pursue procedural justice in public policy. Some libertarians are also committed to opportunity-based and risk-based pricing policies. Opportunity-based pricing sets the price at the highest possible level that buyers are willing to pay, without increasing production volume to the point where it diminishes total profit. In some markets some buyers are

inevitably priced out of the market as the result of opportunity-based pricing. However this is not deemed unfair, since unfairness is thought to arise only under imperfect competition.

Risk-based pricing takes into account the financial and market risk that a company takes by exploiting an economic opportunity in a given market: the greater the risk that a company takes in marketing a given product or service, higher the expectation for profit; and conversely, the lower the risk taken, the lower the profit expectation. Under a risk-based pricing policy, an unfair price violates the formal principle of justice when prices are set higher than the risk exposure can justify. Both opportunity-based and risk-based pricing are blind to the end-state pattern (the actual distribution of their product among consumers), therefore it is impossible for pharmaceutical companies to exercise any social obligations toward price sensitive patients. Moreover, both pricing policies require a bare minimum of governmental interference in the market's natural mechanisms.

Although, according to stockholder theory, corporations exist solely to generate profits and therefore have no direct obligation to serve the public good. They often argue that the public interest is best served by free competition in the marketplace and that at least some temporary monopolies are morally unacceptable.

Stockholder theorists argue that there are two different kinds of monopoly: Natural Monopolies and Artificial Monopolies. Natural monopolies arise when business drives all of its competitors out of the market by offering superior products, more efficient operation, or lucky supply sources. Sometimes natural monopolies arise because of a contagion of incompetent competitors. The only condition here for natural monopoly is that has been forcibly prevented from entering the market. Artificial Monopolies, in contrast, arise where the sole provider of the services or goods gains a favorable market position because the government won't allow anyone else to enter that market to compete with them. Stakeholder theorists often create artificial monopolies where they believe market failure is inevitable, most notably in medicine and education.

Pharmaceutical companies are artificial monopolies that enjoy the benefits of imperfect competition. Libertarians generally reject this kind of tampering with markets and believe that artificial monopolies are the progeny of misguided patterned distribution schemes. Price unfairness in pharmaceutical markets occurs most often when the sellers profit more than could be justified under perfect competition.

Defenders of the patterned regulatory model argue that one cannot evaluate the fairness of a drug pricing policy apart from how it affects both sellers and the buyers in the end-state. Indeed, many distributions that result from opportunity-based and risk-based pricing policies end up depriving, at least some buyers of necessary, life-saving drug treatment. The Patterned Regulatory Model holds that in the distribution of essential goods and services (needs) unpatterned pricing policies are amoral, and therefore are irrelevant to the question of fairness.

Patterned theorists, therefore, prefer cost-based pricing policies which take into account a company's total investment in development, testing, manufacturing, and marketing of the product and then profit margin is set at a certain "reasonable" percentage. Here much depends on how one arrives at this percentage and how one defines a reasonable profit. It is generally agreed, however, that a reasonable price is one in which the price does not greatly exceed the full cost of researching, developing, manufacturing, marketing, and distributing the products. Costs might also a reasonable return for investors.

The inherent problem with cost-based pricing is that companies own this basic information, which sets up legal access barriers. Behind this wall of protection corporations are prone to manipulate costs in order to justify higher profits. So the first step toward instituting cost-based pricing for pharmaceutical products marketed in the United States would be for the government to gain legal access to the records of pharmaceutical companies.

In the United States, where corporate records are regarded as private property, this has been a difficult task. But it is important to acknowledge that pricing policies serve rationing mechanisms for products and services. As a result, products and services in the United States have been, in effect, rationed by the private decisions made by corporate leadership. Corporations typically justify high prices by arguing that they are entitled to be rewarded for the economic risks they assume for investing in research and development. However, many companies have resisted pressure from interest groups and the government to reveal their actual costs.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Health and Safety in the Workplace

The moral questions associated with health and safety in the workplace typically involve the harm principle and therefore are very complex. Ideally, one would expect companies to provide a healthy and safe working environment for all employees. But unfortunately, some occupations are inherently more dangerous than others, such as: steel work, police and military work, and lion taming. Although the workplace of a policeman or steel worker will never be as safe as that of a college professor, one might argue that companies ought to spare no expense in reducing those known risks. But providing a healthy and safe work environment always has a cost. Libertarians are fond of pointing out that government could make our interstate highways 100% safe by instituting a 25 MPH speed limit. But of course, that won't happen because the loss in terms of travel time is not worth the lives it would save. (What do you think about that one?) Similarly, most modern safety measures designed to protect policemen, such as well-equipped police cruisers, state of the art defensive weapons, cameras, bullet-proof vests, and well-trained police dogs all cost money. An idealist (usually a stakeholder theorist) might argue that the life of one policeman is more valuable than any amount of money, and therefore communities ought to spare no expense to insure the safest possible working environment. Although this may appear to be a sound moral position, I would argue that we must also take into account other principles such as utility and liberty.

A utilitarian would apply cost-benefit analysis and provide only those safety measures that are cost effective and most likely to actually protect the valued policeman from the most probable threats. Hence, if a small-town policeman rarely encounters armed bad guys, community leaders might justifiably decide to forego the bullet-proof vests and the AK47s. Some communities might decide to issue bullet proof vests and AK47s to their public school teachers.

Sometimes corporate enforcement of safety measures violates the liberty of its workers. Suppose a construction worker prefers to not wear a hard hat on the job, even though it substantially reduces the risk of head injuries. Should the company force him/her to wear that hard hat? Should policemen be forced to carry guns? Should college professors be forced to wear bullet proof vests? Self-interested utilitarian companies have no moral qualms with forcing employees to abide by health and safety standards. The liberty of its workers is always secondary to the "greatest happiness principle." They might deal with our risk-taking employee as follows: "Look! We spent thousands of dollars training you. If you get hurt on the job, it will hurt the company and we’ll have to train someone else to do your job. We won’t take that risk. Therefore, put on that damn hard hat or you’re fired!"

Paternalistic companies routinely violate the liberty principle in order to protect its workers from self-inflicted harm. They might say: "We realize that you would prefer not to spend $100 on a hard-hat, but it’s in your best interest to wear one. We’ll buy it for you. You wear it!" Of course, modern corporations must also deal with third-parties, especially insurance companies and paternalistic government regulators.

Libertarians, however, elevate personal self-interest over communal self-interest. They would simply require that companies warn workers of all known job-related risks and perhaps provide access to safety equipment. But in the end it is the worker alone that has the right to decide whether to use it or not. Of course, this means that if a worker suffers a head injury on the job because she didn’t wear her hard hat, she alone is responsible for the injury, not the company. The libertarian boss would, however, exercise his/her liberty and hire someone to replace our risk-taking, brain-damaged libertarian worker. Hence we have the classic moral tension between utilitarian policies which violate the liberty of individual workers by forcing them to work safely in order to promote the "greatest good," and, liberty-based policies which avoid force, protect the liberty of both employers and employees, but sometimes sacrifice utility in doing so.

Stockholder Theorists argue that workplace safety standards, like wages, ought to be market-based, voluntary and contractual: set by personal decisions forged between employers and employees based on market forces. If a company has unsafe working conditions, rationally self-interested workers will either demand higher wages or gravitate toward other jobs that offer better working conditions. Moreover, if a worker is injured at an unsafe workplace because he/she chooses dangerous work at higher compensation level, then that worker himself would be responsible for the injury and not the company or the government: unless he earlier chose to purchase workman’s compensation from another corporation.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Principle of Justice

The principle of justice is deeply rooted in Western thought. Traditionally, it reflects our notoriously vague notions about "fairness." In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that there are basically two spheres of justice: "justice in retribution" and "justice in distribution." However, both spheres are subject to a single formal principle of justice, which states that "equals should be treated equally and that unequals should be treated unequally," or in other words, "we ought to receive, no more, nor less than we deserve." Whenever we develop moral arguments about retributive or distributive justice, we naturally invoke the formal principle. This formal principle obviously leaves us in the dark concerning which individuals are, in fact, equals and how much pleasure or pain they deserve.

Material principles of justice link the formal concept to the real world. In the history of ethics, there are several recurring material principles, or patterns that human beings invoke when they justify one distribution rather than another. These patterns are: merit, equality, need, and social utility.

The principle of merit says that a just society is one where the best people get the most, and the worst people get the least. Meritocracy, therefore, implies hierarchical social arrangements, where the best persons occupy the higher rungs and the lower persons the lower rungs. All societies distribute at least some things based on merit, such as: Superbowl rings, doctoral degrees, driver‟s licenses, and merit scholarships. Even if we wanted to, it would probably be impossible to separate merit from our idea of justice. Unfortunately, merit can mean many different things to different individuals and societies. We are all egoists, therefore, all tend to believe that we as individuals, our families, and our friends, are best and deserve to occupy those higher rungs.

The principle of equality states that at least some things in life ought to be distributed equally. Under normal circumstances, we usually divide up a pizza based on this principle. Egalitarianism implies that at least some social goods ought to be distributed equally. The problem lies in determining exactly what social goods ought to be redistributed equally, and what social goods ought to be distributed based on some other pattern such as, merit, need, or social utility. Clearly some things should not be distributed based on equality:

The principle of need states that resources ought to be distributed to each person according to individual need. Hence, rather than divide up that pizza equally, or based on merit, we might decide that it‟s fair to give most of that pizza, or all of it, to a friend (or stranger) who hasn‟t eaten in a week. We usually try to distribute things like chemo-therapy, welfare checks, and some scholarships based on need. There are some that will argue, unpersuasively, that everything should be distributed based on need. But that‟s extremely messy. The underlying assumption is that we can objectively determine who is truly in need. Of course, one might argue that the fact that you are in need, may or may not be a good reason for others to fill that need. It may or may not be unfair if you are currently in need because of your own bad decisions. If I‟m in need of food because I spent all of my money on lottery tickets, it probably doesn't make much sense for me to claim that my hunger is unjust. But then again, one might argue that gambling is a disease and that the Ohio Lottery generates need. Libertarians are usually willing to help fulfill the needs of others, but not unconditionally. If someone is in need because of forces beyond their control, libertarians might be willing to provide temporary assistance. But, as I stated earlier, they are loath to set up a public system comprised of beneficiaries supported by benefactors.

The distributive principle of social utility holds that we ought to distribute at least some things in such a way as to maximize a favorable balance between pain and pleasure in the whole community. Hence, we might decide to immunize all inner-city children in Cincinnati against certain diseases, regardless of merit, equality, or need, in order to minimize the long term social costs associated with treating them for preventable diseases later on.

Of course, the basic problem of justice is how to determine which material principle, or pattern, is relevant to the distribution of which particular resource. If I were to offer a scholarship to attend the Mount, should I award it based on social utility (cost-benefit), equality (have a lottery), merit (administer a test), or need (check your annual income)? Of course, different persons will benefit from the scholarship, depending on which material principle is invoked. So in the final analysis, one might ask: "Who really deserves that scholarship?" Libertarians argue that society ought to refrain from all redistribution schemes (equality, need, utility, merit) and allow the free market to do the distributing. In a free market, I can own a Mercedes Benz automobile, or perhaps more likely, a Gibson ES 335 electric guitar, if I am willing to pay the market price for it.
 Justice in retribution embraces the familiar notion of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," otherwise known as the principle of proportionality. We are morally obligated to praise and blame others in proportion to what they deserve. Justice, therefore, requires that we get no more, nor less, than we deserve. Justice in retribution involves the familiar concept of payback. When we think about justice in retribution we most often apply it to our response to wrongdoing, and reduce it to the familiar maxim: "the punishment must fit the crime."

Justice in distribution carries with it the idea that there are better and worse ways to distribute pleasures and pains within a community. Again, it says that we ought to get "no more, nor less than we deserve." Hence, we suffer from an injustice when we either get more or less than we deserve. Of course, we don‟t often complain when we get more of a good thing than we deserve or when we get less of a bad thing than we actually deserve.

When philosophers and economists talk about distributive justice, they usually distinguish between various classes of things that are subject to just or unjust distribution. One such distinction differentiates between human wants or desires, on the one hand, and needs, or primary goods, or resources, on the other. The principle of justice in distribution is only applicable under conditions of scarcity. When everyone has as much of something as they need or want, they usually do not complain of injustice. If Charles Darwin was right, we can expect a biological world characterized by scarce resources and competition between organisms to possess those resources. For human beings and some animals, possession of resources generally brings pleasure and the lack of resources, pain. Nature distributes resources based on "natural selection;" (John Rawls calls it the "Natural Lottery") the strong get the resources and the weak generally do not. Is that fair? Is Mother Nature fair in her dealings with human beings? The principle of distributive justice comes into play when we humans decide collectively not to live under Darwinian rule, but instead, decide to redistribute resources and the pains and pleasures associated with them, based on justice.

The Liberty Principle

Liberty is the principle of self-direction. Liberalism is the Enlightenment political doctrine that values liberty above other principles, such as beneficence, utility, and justice. There are two strands of Western Liberalism: egalitarianism and libertarianism. The differences between these two stands will be discussed in the next section.

Both egalitarians and libertarians believe that human beings ought to be able to do, pretty much, whatever they want. Many philosophers follow John Stuart Mill's idea that utility and liberty are mutually supporting principles. A happy society is nothing more than a society that has a lot of happy individuals. How do we become happy individuals? Simply put, in order to be happy we have to have a certain percentage of our needs and wants fulfilled. But who has a more accurate of idea of what those needs and wants might be: a.) we ourselves as individuals, or b.) someone else? More importantly, does government really know how to make you happy? If we as individuals know what kinds of things make us happy, and if we are more likely to know how to attain those things, then any society that aspires toward collective happiness must protect an individual's right to pursue those things. In my mind, that is a simple empirical truth. Now this is not to say that we as individuals have perfect insight into what makes us happy. In fact, most of us tend to discover happiness over the course of our lifetimes via trial and error. My sole hypothesis here is that rational competent adults are better judges of their own personal happiness than government, and that the collective happiness is proportional to personal freedom.

But the liberty principle does have its own fair share of philosophical controversy. Obviously, some critics argue that human beings are neither rational nor do they possess something that resembles free will. Admittedly, that might be true. But if it is true, there is no sense talking about morality apart mere convention or politics. So my view is that moral responsibility implies rationality and free will. If I'm wrong, the whole libertarian agenda makes no sense. I think I'm on solid ground.

There are problems too. As we have already seen, the pursuit of pleasure by some individuals often conflicts with the pursuit of pleasure by others. After all, it is virtually impossible to live in a modern society without interfering with another individual's pursuit of pleasure. Here, there are varying degrees of conflict. For example, my elderly neighbor finds her pleasure working in the tranquil and serene confines of her garden. I enjoy playing electric guitar at a near-deafening volume level, but my elderly neighbor complained that my playing is both physically and aesthetically painful to her. Another neighbor experienced pleasure from raising vicious pit bulls, while my children derived pleasure running around the neighborhood playing "Capture the Flag" on warm summer evenings. Any society committed to the private pursuit of pleasure or happiness and the liberty necessary to sustain it, must provide for the resolution of these types of personal conflicts. So over the years, philosophers have proposed a variety of liberty limiting principles, which include: harm to others, harm to self, harm to public institutions, offense, legal moralism, and social utility. Libertarians recognize only harm to others, and under limited conditions, harm to self.

All libertarians recognize one liberty limiting principle: that is, harm to others. The formula says: "You can do whatever you want as long as you do not harm anyone else in the process." There are two objective ways to harm others: by forcefully seizing their property (the fruits of their labor) or by killing or injuring their bodies. The distinction between harm to others and harm to self, however, implies other distinctions; most notably a distinction between self-regarding acts (that do not harm others) and other-regarding acts (that harm others); and a distinction between acts and speech. Libertarians argue that a liberal government may regulate other-regarding acts, but they may not regulate self-regarding acts.

First of all, it takes "thick skin" to live under a libertarian society. My children and I must tolerate my neighbor's vicious barking dogs, unless I can prove that their enclosure is inadequate. Of course, if my dog-loving neighbor's pit bulls escape and bite my kids, then the government could justify regulating his actions (or the actions of his dogs). My elderly neighbor might occasionally have to tolerate my guitar playing, barking dogs, and screaming kids. She might consider wearing headphones or wear earplugs when she works in her garden. I might build a fence around my yard to protect my kids from wandering pit bulls. At any rate, unless there is objective harm to others involved, libertarians argue that these kinds of disputes are best resolved by rational individuals engaged in one-on-one bargaining, "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours!" Simply put, don't want to employ the coercive power of government to solve all of our disputes.

What are some examples of these self-regarding acts that are obviously protected by the liberty principle? Let's start off with things that we all do at home. Clearly I should certainly be able to sleep in the new boxer shorts that I bought at Wal-Mart, read a book purchased on Amazon, pick my nose, or eat spaghetti with my hands. Clearly, none of these acts harm anyone. They don't even harm me. I would also add, sharing a bottle of wine with my wife. Of course, if I decided to go out joy riding afterwards, that might be a problem. I might harm others in a car accident. But the problem here is how to determine exactly how much alcohol consumption it takes to impede judgment. Laws in the United States are disproportionately influenced by powerful industries. In the case of the regulation of drinking and driving, on the one side we have the alcohol industry and its distributors that want us to be able to drive to a bar or restaurant and have a couple of drinks, without having to worry about getting arrested. On the other side, we have the insurance industry that would prefer that we not only drive stone cold sober, but also that we drive only armored vehicles on the highways at 25 miles per hour, to avoid property and personal injury claims.

The real problem here is repeat offenders; that is lifelong alcoholics that repeatedly get drunk, get behind the wheel, crash, and harm others. Libertarians argue that DUI laws ought to focus on getting these people off the road. We all know that taking their licenses away does not deter them, nor do the modest court fines or brief jail. Libertarians would certainly support long jail sentences for alcoholics that repeatedly get into accidents. They will not support the expenditure of tax money to pay for rehabilitation either, even if those programs were proven to be efficient.

But the most basic problem is that the defenders of personal liberty must deal with a growing number of misguided Americans that want our highways to be as safe as our living rooms. While this might seem to be a worthwhile public policy goal, where does this quest for universal personal safety end? Do we want to live in vacuum sealed, risk free society, if it means giving up most of our personal pleasures: beer drinking, smoking, meat eating, sky diving, race car driving, or pot smoking? It's this very mindset that has fueled not only the ongoing wars on drugs, alcohol, and tobacco; but also the war on terror. Perfect security requires is  incompatible with personal liberty. For thousands of years, despots have used the pursuit of security as an excuse to usurp personal liberty. Do you really believe that the same government that planned and executed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the responded poorly to Hurricane Katrina can be trusted to efficiently insure our security? Do you currently hold any stocks in one of those security conscious airlines?

There is also a longstanding puzzle that arises in the context of speech. Of course, we have a legal right to freedom speech, but how far does that right extend? Libertarians consider speech to be (almost always) self-regarding, in the sense that words rarely "harm" other persons. Remember when we were kids we used to say, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!" Admittedly, I don't enjoy being told that I'm a jerk, ass hole, idiot, or creep. Occasionally in the exercise of their free speech, students say bad things about me that, frankly, hurt my feelings. The problem here is how to deal with these hurt feelings in a free society. Some libertarians, like John Stewart Mill, defend free speech, in general, on utilitarian grounds by saying that by leaving speech unregulated we are more likely to find the truth in a diversity of expressed opinions. When students point flaws in my teaching, I try to fix those flaws. Trial and error implies feedback!

But clearly, some forms of speech do harm others. As Mill suggested, if I falsely yell, "FIRE!" in a crowded theater, and if I know that there really is no fire, my words may unnecessarily harm others. Sometimes in the exercise of free speech, we harm others by making false or derogatory statements or by verbally threatening to use violence. But today, there is an ever-growing list of things that we cannot say to others. If you ask a coworker to go out on a date, be careful. You might be contributing to a hostile work environment and be prosecuted for sexual harassment. Libertarians defend a rather narrow definition of harm by restricting to physical harm, or threats of physical harm.

Many argue that "harm to self" can sometimes be invoked as a liberty-limiting principle. Acts of paternalism involve violating a moral principle, usually liberty, in order to provide an unwanted benefit or prevent someone from a harming themselves. Hard paternalism is when you either provide an unwanted benefit or remove harm from a rational person. Soft paternalism is when the unwilling target of our beneficent acts is irrational. Paternalism can be exercised toward individual adults, or groups of adults. Paternalistic intervention can be exercised by either: individuals, groups, or the State.
Of course, not all acts of paternalism can be morally justified. Libertarians reject all forms of hard paternalism because they are against the use of coercive force against competent adults. At least some libertarians support weak paternalism; that is they are sometimes willing to violate the liberty of some individuals in order to protect them from self-inflicted harms. The following conditions must be met before paternalistic intervention can be morally justified:

Competency Requirement: The target of paternalistic intervention must be incompetent. Paternalism can never be justified on behalf of a competent person.

Harm Requirement: The target of paternalistic intervention must be either suffering from a major harm or facing an immanent harm. Paternalism cannot be justified merely to provide an unwanted benefit. It must aim to remove a major harm.

Redounding Good Requirement: The proposed intervention must obviously do more good than harm. Paternalism cannot be justified if the intervention is likely to do more harm than they are already experiencing, or may experience.

Least Restrictive Alternative Requirement: If several interventions are possible we are obligated to employ the least restrictive one.

In sum, libertarians regard all forms of paternalism as problematic.

Another liberty-limiting principle that is often invoked in modern societies is the offense principle, which states that I am at liberty to pursue my own private interests as long as I do not "offend" others in the process. The difficulty with applying this principle is the fact that we all have different levels of sensibility. Some people are offended very easily. For example, some thin- skinned individuals are offended when they see mothers breast-feed their children in public places. They insist that it ought to be done only in private places. But if we regulate public places in such a way to avoid all possible sources of offense, our collective liberty would be severely curtailed, and our public places would not be much fun for anyone. What I consider to be offensive might not be offensive to others. At least some people are offended by rap music, public nudity, burning the American flag, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, and houses painted pink. Therefore, the widespread use of the offense principle as a liberty-limiting principle will invariably lead to a pretty dull public sphere.

Now libertarians do not object if you choose to regulate your own personal behavior based on the offense principle. There are many things in life that I simply will not do because I do not want to offend others. I'll never use offensive words in reference to racial or ethnic groups such as: niggers, spicks, chinks, or Japs. (Oops, I just did!) Problems arise, however, when government attempts to enforce legal limits on speech based on the offense principle. That's because it requires some objective, mutually agreed upon standards.

First of all, libertarians argue that the concept of a public sphere is philosophically incoherent and a threat to personal liberty, and therefore, argue that that all places ought to be private places. If you call me "whop" (or any of the five or six ethic slurs that might apply to my background) when you are visiting my home, I might ask you to leave and I probably won't invite you over again. That's easy enough, right? But how would we go about applying the offense principle in public places?

Suppose the city decides to purchase lakefront property to construct a public park and beach. The idea is create a place that everyone owns collectively. But whenever, any place is designated "public" (beaches, golf courses, libraries, cyberspace, television, radio etc.) there will always be those thin-skinned individuals that want to minimize their own exposure to behaviors that they find offensive. This means that public officials will always be placed in the unenviable position of having to set rules that limit offensive behavior. And, as the old saying goes, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." That means that the threshold of offensiveness will usually be set at the lowest common denominator. No skimpy bathing suits, thongs, rap music, or Irish beer drinking music allowed. Many public places in the United States are so sterile that they are no fun.

We might argue that public acts that offend a majority of people can be restricted? Let's just vote? Others might argue that the main problem with offensiveness, is when it's involuntary; that is, only if, those offenses are imposed on others without their consent. For example, if you voluntarily attend a public art exhibit knowing that it contains homo-erotic material, then you cannot subsequently claim to be offended. Logically, you cannot be voluntarily offended! But enforcing voluntariness alone doesn't seem to solve much. Will Wal-Mart have to post signs that warn customers that they might encounter breastfeeding mothers, obnoxious children, obese customers, violent video games, condoms, birth-control pills, and racy tabloids?

Libertarians argue that the only way to avoid the sterility of an inoffensive culture is to limit the acquisition of public property, which will also limit the government's ability to regulate those places. But in the final analysis, we'll just have to learn to be more tolerant of how others pursue pleasure.

Other forms of speech might harm public institutions. For example I might make a public speech in which I advocate tax evasion as a means of protesting tax policy in the United States. However, if we accept "harm to public institutions" as a liberty-limiting principle, many morally repugnant institutions (such as slavery) might never have been repealed.

In the United States, one of the goofiest debates I've ever encountered has been over whether or not to legalize gay marriage. First of all, whether we like it or not, marriage in the United States has become a public institution regulated and controlled by federal, state, and local governments. It serves as a means of distributing resources, especially in terms of child welfare, health and life insurance. There are tax advantages and disadvantages attached to marriage. Now once something is designated as a "public institution" there is a tendency to assume that it universal and eternal, and therefore, immune to revision. Remember that slavery was at one time a public institution.

By both tradition and legislation, marriage in the United States is assumed to be between males and females. Critics of gay marriage argue that allowing gay couples to get married undermines the institution of marriage. From a libertarian perspective, this argument is incomprehensible, if not laughable.

First of all, there is an unstated premise that institutions ought to support nature, and that lifelong marriage between males and females is "natural." But there is a difference between pair-bonding and marriage. Pair-bonding among human is natural, standing up in front of a public official declaring "till death do us part" is a cultural practice. So is getting divorced, which also requires going before a judge (usually an old man) and paying for a lawyer to file the papers. My take on all this is that marriage is simply a contract between two individuals. Whatever conditions they agree upon is their business. I am also willing to admit that marriage is a religious event, in the Roman Catholic Church it is regarded as a sacrament. In that case, those individuals choose to be Catholics, and choose to say their vows before a priest. They may or may not choose to use artificial birth control. If you choose to be a Catholic, then you must deal with the fact that as an institution, it does not support gay marriage. You can choose to try to reform the church or you can choose to join another church that is more hospitable to gay marriage.

But once marriage becomes a public institution that affects the distribution of resources, that's when it becomes suspect. So why not leave government out of whole marriage issue. Whoever you choose to be your marriage partner is your business. Your choice does not harm anyone else. If a gay couple chooses to adopt children or have children via in vitro fertilization, that's their business. They are as likely, or as unlikely to be good parents as anyone else. Just because you have a marriage license doesn't mean that you will be a good or bad parent. Just because you have a license to cut hair doesn't mean that you are a good or bad hair dresser.

So harm to public institution is a notorious bad justification for violating personal liberty.

The liberty-limiting principle known as Legal Moralism holds that civilized society can justifiably enforce rules of morality. Hence, advocates of this principle believe that the liberty of individuals can be justifiably limited by a moral code imposed and enforced by government, even if there are no harms or offenses committed. For example, I cannot buy beer or wine on Sunday morning in Cincinnati. What's the justification? The city cannot reasonably argue that buying beer either harms others, harms me, or offends others. Apparently the law exists because the city simply believes that it is immoral to purchase beer at that time when you ought to be in church. Some forms of legal moralism also encroach upon the private, self-regarding sphere. Laws against, polygamy, fornication, and sodomy might be good examples.

The basic problem with using the power of government to enforce morality is determining whose moral principles to enforce. Given the variety of moral convictions expressed by the numerous religious groups practicing in the United States, legal moralism could also make for a very restrictive public and private life.

Libertarians believe that morality arises out of the interaction of individuals in communities. They argue back and forth and arrive at some basic rules of conduct. Legal moralism takes the onus of control away from individuals and places it in the hands of public officials. That's how we end up with laws against polygamy, and blue laws that restrict the sale of alcohol on Sundays. If you want to marry 3-4 other persons go for it: as long as everyone involved is an adult and as long as everyone agrees. One would have to prove that polygamy harms others in order to make it illegal. If I'm right, you can't justify its illegality by arguing that it undermines the institution of marriage, or that others find it offensive either. So I support both gay marriage and polygamy. But then again, I also believe that marriage is personal and religious. We don't need government to tell us who to marry. Politicians are not marriage experts and they not especially good at it themselves.

In summary, there have been many proposed liberty-limiting principles. The more the government limits liberty in public and private spheres, the less room there is for individuals and groups to pursue happiness as they see fit.

Terms to Know: Liberty Principle, Liberty-Limiting Principles, Harm to Others, Harm to Self, Paternalism, Offense Principle, Legal Moralism. 


The Principle of Non-Maleficence

The principle of non-maleficence says that, in general, it is morally wrong to inflict harm on others. That sounds simple enough, but it turns out to be enormously complicated given the fact that assisting others often consists in the infliction of a lesser and/or improbable harm in order to avoid a major immanent harm. Let’s call these often unknown harms "side-effects." Hence, the best definition of non-maleficence is probably the following: "Do not cause other persons to die, suffer pain or disability, or deprive them of their most important interests, unless you have a good reason."

It is a timeless and universal Truth supported by both morality and legality that harm to others requires a good reason, or justification. There is a consensus among all human cultures at all times and all places that self-defense provides ample justification. In fact, we don’t have to be taught to defend ourselves. We do it quite naturally, thanks to that selfish gene. However, we can be taught to do it more efficiently. But self-defense as a justification for harm to others is contingent upon true beliefs, namely that there is (in fact) a threat present, and that killing, inflicting pain, or disabling the alleged aggressor is the most efficient way to escape that threat. Of course, we can easily make mistakes about the degree of threat, the necessity for inflicting varying degrees of harm, and even the identity of the purveyor of a threat.

When I was a child, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a strange man sleeping in the bed in the bed next to mine. I went downstairs and told my parents. Of course, they didn’t believe me because I had a longstanding reputation for sleepwalking and confusing reality with dream states. (Some say I still have that problem.) Anyway, my mother finally sent my father upstairs to prove to me that I was only dreaming. When he opened the door, there was a stranger asleep in my room. As it turned out this guy was no threat. He was just a drunk that had stumbled into the wrong house. (We didn’t lock doors back then.) My dad, being a big strong man, picked him up by the seat of his pants and his shirt collar, carried him down the stairs, and threw him out the front door. He really didn’t hurt him. As I look back, I’m sure that he could have inflicted serious harms on this guy. He could have beaten the guy to a pulp, or even killed him. He could have also called the police, which probably would have meant jail time for the guy and/or a hefty fine.

We never heard anything about this guy again. He probably lived somewhere in the neighborhood in a similar house. To this day, I’m not sure if dad did the right thing or not. He made a quick decision, decided that the intruder was no threat, decided that violence was unnecessary, and he decided not to get the police involved. But he could have been wrong. This could have been an armed serial killer that intended to kill all of us. He could have been a lifelong alcoholic with a history of spouse abuse that would have benefited from police intervention. The point here is that when we act out of self-defense we do not always have all the information that we need in order to make a perfectly rational, legal and/or moral decision.

Non-maleficence is often violated under the guise of preemptive strikes, which are notoriously problematic, not only at the individual level, but at the collective level. In general, I’m in favor of laws that permit individuals to carry concealed weapons, but I’m also well aware that not everyone is well-skilled at assessing threats.  In short, pre-emptive strikes in the service of self-defense can often violate the principle of non-maleficence.

Finally, the principle of non-maleficence, invariably conflicts with other principles, especially: beneficence, utility, liberty, and justice. For now, we’ll move onto the principle of liberty, but keep in mind that morality often involves multiple principles that often conflict in the real world. If anyone tries to tell you that ethics is easy, don’t listen.