Andrew Fulford Archive Authors Civic Polity Nota Bene

Conly’s Argument Against Autonomy

Yesterday I responded to one of Sarah Conly’s critiques of moral perfectionism, but I mentioned she provides useful objections to stringent libertarianism. Shortly after I posted this, Steven wrote a provocative analysis of some current libertarian politicking. In the spirit of continuing a criticism of anarcho-capitalism, here is Conly’s argument in a nutshell:

I argue for the justifiability of coercive paternalism, for laws that force people to do what is good for them. This book, thus, supports the use of coercion in what we normally think of as people’s personal lives. This is something, I argue, that we are familiar with and which we often accept. If the person next to me is about to swallow a gulp of anti-freeze in the belief that it is an anti-freeze-colored sports drink, I will intervene. If I tell him it is anti-freeze, and he refuses to believe me, I will still intervene. If I have to grab his arm and pull it away from his mouth I will do that, even though his first reaction is likely to be one of indignation. The thesis of this book is that situations abound which are, in essence, the same. We should save people from doing things that are gravely bad for them when they do that only as a result of an error in thinking. Rather than suggest that individuals roam the planet interfering with each other’s lives in a chaotic and inefficient fashion, however, I argue that the government should intervene in cases of obvious harm and should prevent certain actions from being taken. I argue for paternalistic laws, and more specifically, paternalism of the sort that forces people to act, or refrain from acting, according to their best interests.

Ideally, of course, the best way to save people from the results of error would simply be to inform them of their mistakes. When it comes to drinking anti-freeze, this might work: if we had time, we could convince the other person that it is really anti-freeze, not Gatorade, and the drinker would put the glass down. In other situations, though, the solution is not so simple. Not all cognitive errors can be mended by convincing people of the relevant facts. If we were perfectly rational then this might be effective, but part of the argument of this book is that we are not perfectly rational, and given this, the methods that would be effective for those clear-eyed, clear-thinking individuals we sometimes imagine ourselves to be won’t actually work for us. Sometimes no amount of public education can get someone to realize, in a sufficiently vivid sense, the potential dangers of his course of behavior. If public education were effective, we would have no new smokers, but we do. [3]

Most people, I would hazard to say, will find Conly’s anti-freeze scenario persuasive. There are of course some hardened libertarians who might bite the bullet and say we ought to let the person die, but most will not follow them there, and in those cases further arguments could be given that undermine the intuitions of the anarcho-libertarian.

However, more reasonable people might still fear the implications of Conly’s argument, and that fear has a well known expression: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? What if the paternalist government considers good evil, and evil good, and operates upon this false understanding? There is no point in denying the possibility. Nevertheless, I think we can calm the fear for a few reasons. First, the force of her argument remains, so we cannot simply dismiss the moral principle she has brought to light: sometimes it is true that our love for the good of another might require us to use force to prevent them to do something they wish to do. Whatever our political theory, it will not count as an accurate vision of reality if it simply ignores this truth. Second, her reason for giving this power of intervention to the government is entirely reasonable, and has been noted as a good reason for government from time immemorial: if everyone is permitted to do by force what is right in their own eyes, partiality alone is likely to lead to a much worse outcome than if more impartial people are delegated this power. So again, any response to Conly must acknowledge this moral and anthropological reality. Third, in fact, an hypothetical society can install constitutional checks on abuse of this power in advance of delegating it, and if practically possible, could even offer resistance in the cases where there were no prior restrictions. Fourth, in situations where this rule of good law is absent and this resistance is impossible, and where the government is already abusive, there may be nothing left for a righteous citizen to do. But if our theory demands that no tragedy be possible in the real world, we do not have a realistic theory. Any person, and any group of people, can become corrupt, and could conceivably become corrupt such that good people would be in the minority, and unable to stop the corruption. Until halting that degradation is impossible, the citizen or person can still resist it through whatever morally licit means they have at hand. When it becomes impossible, they will prudently acknowledge it, and pray to the One who does watch the watchmen to act. And that is not a futile desire: he has pulled down the mighty from the thrones before, and he can do it again.

4 replies on “Conly’s Argument Against Autonomy”

But what of the minarchist response to Conly’s dilemma? They would allow for such intevention. It’s certainly not voluntarist, but it allows for the dignity of the individual because the circumstance is direct unlike such things as taxation, representative government, democracy, etc.

It’s not clear to me how the degree of directness would make a difference. Could you explain further?

The degrees of separation between moral human actions make a great deal of difference. When coercion is compounded, as in the case of person A paying person B to stop person C from consuming anti-freeze (against person C’s will), moral law has a tendency to become increasingly more disembodied and thus rife with potential injustice.

Just stop to consider the relationship between person B and person C. Does person B have competing incentives for helping person A stop person C? What is the nature of the relationship between person A and person B? And what of person A’s action? How can it any longer be called a single action with a single set of consequences? Political philosophers disagree about how and to what extent there a emerges a potential for injustice. But, large-scale representative forms of government, like those we have in modern times, are evidence enough. Just consider their form of taxation (IRS)–their penchant for violence (armed conflict).

We might not agree about whether the income tax in the US should could be considered theft, but we might all agree that in its current form it has its flaws. But, those flaws cannot be viewed as anything other than injustices. Errors in governance can only ever be viewed as injustices. The difficulty comes in pinpointing where exactly the fault lies, and thus we have an even greater injustice–the absence of responsibility. Even if we were to (uncharacteristically, in my case) take the side of the poor veteran, who after his years of service could not access his fair share of his nation’s resources, there’d be no one to condemn. Bureaucracies are purposely devoid of culpability. Having a recourse is essential for justice. All we get in our current tax system is dead ends.

At least in Conley’s original dilemma you can have self-defense without treason or trade. Local, direct, and limited governments have a greater potential for the application of real moral law because they allow for unsullied link between the agents of government and the governed.

It seems to me that the main point of the argument is to undermine the view that nothing can ever justify “aggression” except previous aggression. Once the minarchist or whoever has accepted that the extreme use of the non-aggression principle as found in some political philosophies is unworkable, then the issue becomes more of a prudential question: what works best to secure justice in xyz circumstances? I’m far from saying everything should be done by the most remote possible government (a one-world government?).

I do agree that matters become more complicated as more separation occurs, and tend towards a preference for localism for that reason. However, I do not think that closer is *always and without fail* better, and so I also think it just for political societies to at least have contingency plans in place in case of failure on the part of those who are closer.

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