The Social Contract

The social contract theory… holds that… there is a contractual relationship between the government and its citizens. The contract requires the government to provide certain services for the population, notably protection from private criminals and hostile foreign governments. In return, citizens agree to pay their taxes and obey the laws.

At first glance the theory exhibits an impudent disregard for reality: no one has ever been presented with a contract describing how the government operates and asked for a signature.

But even if there was an original social contract, how could this contract bind people born much later, who never participated in the original agreement and were never asked for their consent?

David Hume painted the more realistic picture of human history, when he observed that nearly all governments are founded on usurpation or conquest… In the case of the United States and its government, for instance, the history is one of conquest.

Explicit consent is consent that one indicates by stating, either verbally or in writing, that one consents. By contrast, implicit consent is consent that one indicates through one’s conduct, without actually stating one’s agreement.

How can one indicate agreement without stating agreement? In some situations, one expresses agreement to a proposal simply by refraining from opposing it. I call this ‘passive consent’.

In other cases, one commits oneself to accepting certain demands by soliciting or voluntarily accepting benefits to which those demands are known to be attached. I call this ‘consent through acceptance of benefits’. For example, suppose you enter a restaurant and order a nice, tasty veggie wrap. After you eat the wrap, the waitress brings the check. ‘What’s this?’ you say. ‘I never said I was going to pay for any of this. If you wanted payment, you should have said so at the start. I’m sorry, but I don’t owe you anything.’ In this case, the restaurant could plausibly argue that, by ordering the food, you implicitly indicated agreement with the usual demand connected with the provision of that food: namely, payment of the price mentioned on the menu.

A third form of implicit consent is what I call ‘consent through presence’, whereby one indicates agreement to a proposal merely by remaining in some location. While having a party at my house, I announce, loudly and clearly to everyone present, that anyone who wants to stay at my party must agree to help clean up afterwards. After hearing my announcement, you carry on partying. In so doing, you imply that you agree to help clean up at the end.

Finally, sometimes one implicitly consents to the rules governing a practice by voluntarily participating in the practice. I call this ‘consent through participation’.

Each of these four kinds of implicit consent… might be used as a model for citizens’ implicit acceptance of the social contract. To begin with, perhaps citizens typically consent to the social contract merely by refraining from objecting to it (passive consent)… Consent through acceptance of benefits would also confer a nearly universal authority. Nearly everyone has accepted at least some benefits from the government… Consider next the case of consent through presence… The government does not require anyone (other than prisoners) to remain in the country, and it is well known that those who live within a given country are expected to obey the laws and pay taxes… Lastly, some citizens might give implicit consent through participation in the political system. If one votes in elections, it might be inferred that one accepts the political system in which one is participating.

A valid agreement is an agreement that is morally efficacious — that is, it succeeds in rendering permissible some action to which one consents or in generating an obligation to act in a way that one has agreed to act… For instance, suppose a criminal holds a gun to your head and demands that you sign over the movie rights to your latest book. If you sign, the contract would be invalid, because the threat of violence made it nonvoluntary.

Valid consent requires a reasonable way of opting out… Consider… ‘Next week’s meeting will be moved to Tuesday at ten o’clock. Those who object will kindly signal this by cutting off their left arms.’ The chairman pauses. No arms come off. ‘Good, it’s agreed!’ he declares. This is not a valid agreement, because the demand that board members give up their left arms as the price of dissenting from the schedule change is unreasonable. On the other hand, in the party example… the demand that you leave my party if you do not agree to help clean up is reasonable, because I have the right to determine who may attend my parties… The important difference… is not simply that losing your left arm is much worse than being expelled from a party. The chairman would not be justified even in demanding that board members pay one dollar… Rather, it is a matter of who has rights over the good that dissenters are asked to give up.

Explicit dissent trumps alleged implicit consent. A valid implicit agreement does not exist if one explicitly states that one does not agree… Suppose that, after being seated [in the restaurant example], you tell the waitress, ‘I will not pay for any food that you bring me. But I would like you to give me a veggie wrap anyway.’ If the waitress then brings you the wrap, you are not obligated to pay for it… What about the party example?… Suppose that after my announcement, you reply, ‘I do not agree’. I then ask you to leave, but you refuse… it is plausible that you are obligated to help clean up — not because you agreed to do so, but because I have the right to set conditions on the use of my house… This derives not from an agreement but from my property right over the house.

An action can be taken as indicating agreement to some scheme, only if one can be assumed to believe that, if one did not take that action, the scheme would not be imposed on me. Suppose that in the board meeting example, the chairman announces, ‘Next week’s meeting will be moved to Tuesday at ten o’clock, and I don’t care what any of you have to say about it — the schedule change will happen whether you object to it or not. Now, does anyone want to object?’… Though the board members were given a chance to object, they were also given to understand that if they objected, the schedule change would be imposed anyway. Their failure to express objections therefore cannot be taken to indicate agreement. It may simply indicate that they did not wish to waste their breath protesting something about which they had no choice.

Contractual obligation is mutual and conditional… Suppose that you order food in a restaurant… If the waitress never brings the food, then you need not pay them; their failure to live up to their end of the deal releases you from the obligation to live up to yours.

What are the available means of opting out of the social contract? There is only one: one must vacate the territory controlled by the state.

Let us review some of the reasons one might have for failing to exercise this option. To leave one’s country, one must generally secure the permission of some other state to enter its territory, and most states impose restrictions on immigration. In addition, some individuals lack the financial resources to move to the country of their choice. Those who can move may fail to do so due to attachments to family, friends, and home. Finally, if one moves to another country, one will merely become subject to another government. What should one do if one does not wish to consent to any government? Those seeking to avoid all government jurisdiction have three options: they may live in the ocean, move to Antarctica, or commit suicide.

In light of this, is the option of leaving the territory controlled by the state a reasonable way of opting out of the social contract? Some find it unreasonable because the demand is too onerous. In the words of David Hume,

We may as well assert that a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean, and perish, the moment he leaves her.

Here is one answer: perhaps the state owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction. Thus, as I may expel people from my house if they do not agree to clean up at the end of the party, the state may expel people from its territory if they do not agree to obey the laws and pay taxes.

For illustration, consider the case of the United States. In this case, the state’s control over ‘its’ territory derives from (1) the earlier expropriation of that land by European colonists from the people who originally occupied it… This does not seem to give rise to a legitimate property right on the part of the U.S. government… Might does not make right; the mere fact that the state exercises power over the people in a certain region does not give the state a property right (nor any other kind of right) in all the land within that region.

Let us turn to the second condition: you have not implicitly accepted a contract if you explicitly state that you do not accept it. In the case of the social contract, a small number of people have explicitly indicated their disagreement. These are the political anarchists, people who hold that there should be no government. Yet every government continues to impose laws and taxes on anarchists. However vociferously you protest against the social contract, the government will not refund your tax money nor exempt you from the laws.

The third principle… Almost everyone knows that the state will still impose the same laws and the same taxes on everyone, regardless of whether one objects to the government, accepts government services, or participates in the political process. Therefore, one’s failure to object, one’s acceptance of government services, and even one’s participation in the political process cannot be taken to imply agreement to the social contract.

Finally, we come to the fourth principle concerning valid agreements: a contract imposes mutual obligations on the parties, with each party’s obligation conditional on the other party’s acceptance of its obligation… Given the wide and indefinite range of laws that might be created by the state and the range of punishments to which one might be subjected for violating them, an individual’s concessions to the state under the social contract are quite large.

The state, in turn, is supposed to assume an obligation to the citizen, to enforce the citizen’s rights, including protecting the citizen from criminals and hostile foreign governments. Does the state ever fail in this duty? What happens when it does?

In one sense, the state fails all the time. In any large society, thousands or millions of citizens are victimized each year by crimes that the state failed to prevent. But it would be unreasonable to expect the state to prevent all crimes. Perhaps the social contract only requires the state to make a reasonable effort to prevent crimes. But what if the state fails to do even that? Suppose you are a victim of a serious crime that the government could easily have prevented, at little cost, had it made a reasonable effort to do so. Would the state then have failed in its obligations under the social contract? If the social contract means anything, then the answer to that question must be yes.

In the United States, that situation has occurred many times. I describe one such instance below… On a morning in March 1975, two men broke into a town house in Washington, DC, where three women resided. The two women upstairs heard the break-in and heard their roommate’s screams coming from downstairs. They telephoned the police and were told that help was on the way. The two women crawled out of a window onto an adjoining roof and waited. They observed a police car drive by and then leave. Another officer had knocked on the front door but, receiving no answer and seeing no signs of forced entry, decided to leave. The police did not check the back entrance to the house, where the criminals had actually broken in. Going back inside, the women upstairs again heard their roommate screaming, and they again telephoned the police. They were assured that help was on the way, but in fact no officers were ever dispatched to respond to the second call. When their roommate’s screams stopped, the two women upstairs thought the police had arrived. They called down to their roommate, which served only to alert the criminals to their presence. The two criminals then kidnapped the three women and took them back to one of the criminal’s apartments, where they beat, robbed, and raped the women over the course of fourteen hours.

What is notable about this case is not just that the state failed tragically in its obligation to protect some of its citizens. More important for the social contract theory is what happened afterwards. The women sued the District of Columbia in federal court, for the government’s negligent failure to protect them. If the government had a contractual obligation to make a reasonable effort to protect its citizens, then the women should have had a clear-cut case. In fact, the judges dismissed the case without a trial. The plaintiffs appealed, but the dismissal was upheld.

Why? No one disputed the government’s negligence, and no one disputed that the women had suffered great harm as a direct result of that negligence. What the court denied was that the government had any duty to provide protection to the three women in the first place. The Appeals Court cited ‘the fundamental principle that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen’. The government’s duty, the court explained, was only a duty to the public at large, to provide a general deterrent to crime. The court worried that the recognition of a duty to protect individuals ‘would effectively bring the business of government to a speedy halt’ and ‘dispatch a new generation of litigants to the courthouse over grievances real and imagined’.

This was not an idiosyncratic decision. In another case, a women telephoned the police because her estranged husband had just called her and told her that he was coming over to murder her. The police told her to call back when he arrived. When he arrived, the woman was unable to call back because her husband carried out his threat. In a third case, the Department of Social Services was monitoring a man for abuse, but the child was left in his father’s custody. Eventually, the man beat his son so severely that the child suffered permanent brain damage. These cases, too, resulted in lawsuits against the government, and these suits, too, were summarily dismissed. The child abuse case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the dismissal. Again, the courts held that the government owed no duty to protect the citizens in these cases.

My claim in this section has not been that most people would not agree to have a government. My claim is that there is in fact no valid agreement. Perhaps you would have accepted the social contract if you had been given a choice. But you were not. This makes your relationship with the government a nonvoluntary, noncontractual one, regardless of whether you are actually happy with the relationship. Nor do I claim that all nonvoluntary relationships are morally illegitimate or unjust. The point is simply that the social contract theory is false, because it depicts a nonvoluntary relationship as voluntary.

The central moral premise of the traditional social contract theory is commendable: human interaction should be carried out, as far as possible, on a voluntary basis. But the central factual premise flies in the face of reality: whatever else may be said about it, subjection to government is obviously not voluntary. In modern times every human being is born under this subjection and has no practical means of escaping it.

[…] You have gone out for drinks with some colleagues and students, and one of the students has proposed that you pay for everybody’s drinks. Over your protests, the other parties at the table vote to have you pay for the drinks. You tell them that you will not agree to do so. They then inform you that, if you do not pay, they intend to punish you by locking you in a room for some time and that they are prepared to take you by force.

Relatively speaking, democracy is admirable. In large and obvious ways, it is superior to all other known forms of government. But it does not solve the problem of political authority. The fact that a majority of persons favor some rule does not justify imposing that rule by force on those who do not agree to it nor coercively punishing those who disobey the rule. To do so is, typically, to disrespect the dissenters and treat them as inferiors. Matters are not altered if one adds that the majority deliberated in a special way before deciding to impose the rule.

[…] All social systems are imperfect. In every society, people sometimes suffer from crime and injustice. In an anarchist society, this would remain true. The test of anarchism as a political ideal is whether it can reduce the quantity of injustice suffered relative to the best alternative system, which I take to be representative democracy. I have argued that a particular sort of anarchist system, one that employs a free market for the provision of security, holds the promise of a safer, more efficient, and more just society.

The radical nature of this proposal usually calls forth strong resistance: it is said that justice should not be for sale; that the agencies will be at constant war with one another; that they will serve criminals instead of their victims; that they will serve only the rich; that they won’t be able to protect us as well as the government; that they will turn into extortion agencies; that a monopoly or cartel will evolve to exploit the customers. These objections fairly flood forth when students, professors, and educated laypeople are first introduced to the idea of nonstate protective services. But if we examine the proposal more carefully and at greater length, we see that none of these objections are well founded. Anarchists have well-reasoned accounts, grounded in economic theory and realistic premises about human psychology, of how an anarchist society would avoid each of the disasters that critics fear.

Most of the objections raised against anarchy in fact apply more clearly and forcefully to government. This fact is often overlooked because, when confronted with radical ideas, we tend to look only for objections to the new ideas rather than for objections to the status quo. For example, the most common objection to anarchism, the objection that protection agencies would go to war with one another, overlooks both the extreme costliness of combat and the strong opposition that most people feel to murdering other people. The very real threat of war between governments appears a much more serious concern than conflict between private security agencies.

Similarly, the common objection that the security industry will be monopolized lacks foundation. Once we abandon the notion of security agencies doing battle with one another, economic features of the industry, particularly the minimal fixed costs for a security company, should lead us to predict a great number of small firms rather than a single enormous firm. On the other hand, a governmental system is monopolistic by definition and should therefore be expected to suffer from the usual problems of monopolies.

The central advantages of the free market anarchist system over a governmental system are twofold: first, the anarchist system rests on voluntary cooperation and is therefore more just than a system that relies on coercion. Second, the anarchist system incorporates meaningful competition among providers of security, leading to higher quality and lower costs. As a result of these features of the system, individuals living in a free market anarchy could expect to enjoy greater freedom and greater security at a lower cost than those subject to the traditional system of coercive monopolization of the security industry.

[…] This book is an effort to help push society along towards the needed skepticism of authority. It may seem that my position is extreme — as of course it is, relative to the current spectrum of opinion. But current mainstream attitudes are also extreme, relative to the spectrum of opinion of earlier centuries. The average citizen of a modern democracy, if transported back in time 500 years, would be the most wild-eyed, radical liberal on the planet — endorsing an undreamt-of-equality for both sexes and all races; free expression for the most heinous of heretics, infidels, and atheists; a complete abolition of numerous standard forms of punishment; and a radical restructuring of all existing governments. By current standards, every government of 500 years ago was illegitimate.

If a man on seeing a little black were to say it is black, but on seeing a lot of black were to say it is white, it would be clear that such a man could not distinguish black and white… So those who recognize a small crime as such, but do not recognize the wickedness of the greatest crime of all… cannot distinguish right and wrong.

Chinese philosopher Mozi in the 5th century B.C.

If one individual travels to another country to kill people, coercively extracts money from members of his own society, forces others to work for him, or imposes harmful, unjust, or useless demands on others through threats of kidnapping and imprisonment, the governments of the world all condemn that individual. Yet these same governments do not shy away from undertaking the same activities on a national scale.

The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, Dr. Michael Huemer, 2012,

Dragging Words Along

Provided [we are] well equipped with substance, words will follow only too readily; if they won’t follow willingly, [we] will drag them. I hear some making excuses for not being able to express themselves, and pretending to have their heads full of many fine things, but to be unable to express them for lack of eloquence. That is all bluff. Do you know what I think those things are? They are shadows that come to them of some shapeless conceptions, which they cannot untangle and clear up within, and consequently cannot set forth without: they do not understand themselves yet.

For my part I hold, and Socrates makes it a rule, that whoever has a vivid and clear idea in his mind will express it, if necessary in Bergamask dialect, or, if he is dumb, by signs.

… ablatives, conjunctives, substantives, or grammar… all this fine painting is easily eclipsed by the luster of a simple natural truth.

I am not one of those who think that good rhythm makes a good poem. Let him make a short syllable long if he wants, that doesn’t matter; if the inventions are pleasant, if wit and judgment have done their work well, I shall say: There is a good poet, but a bad versifier.

True, but what will he do if someone presses him with the sophistic subtlety of some syllogism? “Ham makes us drink; drinking quenches thirst; therefore ham quenches thirst.” Let him laugh at it; it is subtler to laugh at it than to answer it.

There are some so stupid that they go a mile out of their way to chase after a fine word, or who do not fit words to things, but seek irrelevant things which their words may fit [Quintilian]. And as another says, there are some who are led by the charm of some attractive word to write something they had not intended [Seneca]… On the contrary, it is for words to serve and follow; and let Gascon get there if French cannot. I want the substance to stand out, and so to fill the imagination of the listener that he will have no memory of the words. The speech I love is a simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in the mouth; a speech succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed, not so much dainty and well-combed as vehement and brusque… rather difficult than boring, remote from affectation, irregular, disconnected and bold; each bit making a body in itself; not pedantic, not monkish, not lawyer-like.

As in dress it is pettiness to seek attention by some peculiar and unusual fashion, so in language the search for novel phrases and little-known words comes from a childish and pedantic ambition… The imitation of speech, because of its facility, may be quickly picked up by a whole people; the imitation of judgment and invention does not come so fast. Most readers, because they have found a similar robe, think very wrongly that they have hold of a similar body.

This is not to say that it is not a fine and excellent thing to speak well, but it is not as fine as they make it out; and I am vexed that we keep busy all our life at that.

Michel De Montaigne, Essays, 1580,

Words that came very willingly:

Let us seize pleasures; life is ours to claim;
Too soon we shall be ashes, ghosts, a name.


I wonder whether please pass the salt

There are five broad views about the nature of morality: non-cognitivism, subjectivism, naturalism, nihilism, and intuitionism.

Ethical non-cognitivists say that ‘x is wrong’ does not assert anything that can be true or false. Instead, it just expresses an emotion or issues an imperative. It is thus comparable to ‘Boo on x!’

There is no linguistic evidence to support this. Every objective test that anyone has come up with for distinguishing assertions from imperatives or expressions of emotion gives the result that ‘x is wrong’ is an assertion.

There is little psychological evidence to support non-cognitivism either. The non-cognitivist can point to the fact that emotions often accompany and even cause our moral judgments. But this is equally true of many non-moral, factual judgments, such as people’s beliefs about their own intelligence… Furthermore, the strength of our emotions bears little relationship to our moral beliefs. You can know that Nero’s execution of Agrippina was far more wrong than your roommate’s eating of your ice cream, but still feel more outrage at the latter than at the former. You may indeed feel nothing at all about Agrippina’s fate… All of the reasonably direct and objective evidence is against non-cognitivism– moral claims and judgments act in every discernible way just like assertions and beliefs.

Ethical subjectivists say that ‘x is right’ is a statement about someone’s attitude towards x. Here are three common versions of subjectivism: Individual subjectivism: I (the speaker) approve of x. Cultural relativism: Society approves of x. Divine Command Theory: God approves of x.

Each implies that if the specified individual or group were to change their attitudes, then seemingly horrible things would suddenly become moral; “If (I/society/God) were to approve of torturing and killing children for the fun of it, then it would be right to torture and kill children for the fun of it.”

Individual subjectivism implies, absurdly, that I am morally infallible: that in general, if I approve of something then, automatically, it is morally correct. Cultural relativism similarly implies that society is morally infallible.

The main arguments [for subjectivism] seem to consist of pointing out either that people have many conflicting moral beliefs or that many people form moral beliefs in irrational ways. It is obscure how either of these things could support subjectivism. The arguments make about as much sense as arguing that if three gamblers all believe, for emotional reasons, that different horses are going to win a race, then the race won’t have an outcome in reality, or it will have different outcomes ‘relative’ to different people.

Ethical naturalists hold two beliefs: 1) Moral properties are reducible [without evaluative expressions]; analytic reductionists say that some expression containing no evaluative terms is synonymous with wrong; synthetic reductionists say that some expression containing no evaluative terms explains what it is to be wrong, even though it does not have the same meaning as wrong… and 2) moral truths can be known, ultimately, on the basis of observation.

Analytic reductionism was refuted by G. E. Moore. If two expressions have the same meaning, then it should be possible to substitute one expression for the other in any sentence, without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Synthetic reductionists grant this point. They say that moral properties are reducible in a way analogous to how water, for example, is reducible: water is H2O; however, the word ‘water’ is not synonymous with the word H2O… The first [problem] is that evaluative properties seem, on their face, to be radically different in kind from natural properties. Being good, for instance, is obviously a different kind of thing from… weighing 200 pounds… The second problem is that synthetic reductionists cannot explain moral knowledge. We do not know about wrongness in the way we know about water– we cannot observe with the five senses that an act is wrong.

Nihilists believe that all positive evaluative claims are false… Abortion, the nihilist would say, cannot be wrong, because in order for it to be wrong there would have to be such things as objective values. This view has such implications as the following: murder is not wrong; the most excruciating pain is not worse than the greatest ecstasy; the Holocaust was not bad; and so on.

The [ethical] intuitionists view… [that] evaluative statements assert propositions, which can be true or false (non-cognitivism is false). They are not always false (Nihilism is false). The truth of an evaluative statement is not subjective or relative (subjectivism is false). Evaluative facts cannot be reduced to non-evaluative facts, nor can they be known solely on the basis of observation (naturalism is false). From these points, it follows that some evaluative statements are true; some evaluative statements are objectively true; there are irreducible, objective, evaluative facts, which cannot be known on the basis of observation. [This definition] lacks only a positive statement of how evaluative facts are known…

Some basic principles about good, bad, right, and wrong are self-evident, such as the following: Suffering is bad; If A is better than B and B is better than C, then A is better than C; If an action is wrong, then any qualitatively indistinguishable action (in identical circumstances) is also wrong; No person is blameworthy for an action they did not perform.

We are justified in believing these propositions for the same reason that we are justified in believing observations of the external world: namely, because they seem to be the case and we have no serious grounds for doubting them… We form justified beliefs about the physical world on the basis of sensory appearances. Similarly, we form justified beliefs about certain abstract truths… on the basis of intellectual appearances (‘intuitions’). Intuitions are mental states in which something appears to be the case upon intellectual reflection (as opposed to perception, memory, or introspection), prior to argument… Intuition is our means of cognizing moral truths. It does not create moral truth, any more than perception creates truths about the physical world.

Moral intuitions can be affected by bias, just as nearly all beliefs can. However, moral intuitions are not moral beliefs, nor are they simply caused by our moral beliefs. This is shown by the fact that, when confronted with cases we have never previously considered, we often have moral intuitions that conflict with our moral theories. Thus, even utilitarians experience the intuition that it would be wrong to kill a healthy person to distribute his organs to five other people who need transplants, although utilitarians do not believe this intuition.

Some say that we cannot know moral truths by means of intuition unless we can first verify that intuition in general is reliable… No such verification can be produced. But this is not a problem, for at least two reasons. First, because no such verification exists for sense perception, memory, introspection, or reason in general, either. No one can prove that sense perception is generally reliable, using only non-perceptual evidence. No one can prove that memory is generally reliable, using only information gathered at the present instant in time. No one can prove reason to be reliable, without using reason. But we do not declare all of these forms of cognition illegitimate. To do so would land us in the pit of universal skepticism… Second… Why should any process of cognition demand a second cognitive process directed at the first one? Why not instead hold… that our cognitive faculties are presumed innocent until proven guilty? This avoids dogmatism by leaving us open to the possibility of revising our initial beliefs if new evidence should appear defeating them.

Some claim that intuitionism makes it impossible to understand how moral error and moral disagreement can occur… that there is more error and disagreement than one would expect if intuitionism were true… While there is widespread disagreement about such issues as abortion, affirmative action, and capital punishment, there are no serious disputes about the desirability of such things as murder, rape, and armed robbery. The former sort of issues receive much more attention than the latter, simply because we don’t normally discuss what everyone already knows. This leads to an exaggerated view of the prevalence of controversy.

Second, human error and disagreement are common with respect to many objective, factual questions. People sharply disagree about such things as… whether a particular individual is smarter than another, whether there is a God, and virtually every major issue in philosophy. Furthermore, throughout history, almost everyone who has held any views at all about them has held radically erroneous views about such things as: the causes of health and disease, the structure of the cosmos, the origin of the human species, the existence of disembodied spirits, the composition of the physical world, and the workings of the economy, to name a few. But no one concludes that these matters are all ‘subjective’ or that human beings lack any legitimate cognitive faculties capable of knowing about them.

Third, in general, even when we have available a valid means of cognition, human beings are subject to a great variety of causes of error. These include bias, oversight, miscalculation, confusion, false or incomplete information, and logical fallacies, among others… There is no obvious reason why the problems that lead to errors and disagreements about so many other things would not occur when people think about values.

Fourth, if we consider what sorts of issues people generally disagree about the most and make the most errors about, it is easily predictable that moral matters would be among them. For people tend to disagree and make errors the most about (a) issues they are strongly biased about, including but not limited to those in which their own interests are at stake, (b) issues on which their beliefs are largely based on cultural indoctrination, (c) issues on which their beliefs are largely based on religion, and (d) philosophical issues in general. This is true of whether the issues in question are evaluative. Since moral issues fall into all four of these categories, it is to be expected that disagreement and error would be common with respect to moral issues.

Some object that intuitionism gives us no reasonable method for resolving moral disagreements… First, some ethical intuitions may cohere better or worse with the rest of our intuitions. Thus, moral philosophers commonly argue for positions on controversial moral issues by appealing to our intuitions about allegedly analogous cases.

Second, we can use our knowledge of the factors that tend to affect the reliability of people’s beliefs to determine which intuitions are most likely to be correct. We may reason to believe that certain moral intuitions are unduly influenced by bias, indoctrination, religion, and so on. This is true, for example, of many moral attitudes pertaining to sexuality and reproduction.

Third, even if some moral disputes turn out to be unresolvable, it is obscure how this is supposed to refute intuitionism. There are many disputes, about both moral and non-moral matters, that appear for all practical purposes unresolvable… no other fundamental knowledge source [has] an algorithm for resolving all disputes.

Finally, all versions of the ‘disagreement’ objection appear to be self-refuting… Many intelligent people continue to disagree with the argument from disagreement, and with each meta-ethical theory.

That concludes my official, philosophical case for ethical intuitionism… I believe that intuitionism was rejected because it does not fit with the spirit of the modern age. There are at least three important tendencies of modern, Western culture that are relevant here: cynicism, political correctness, and scientism.

In the twentieth century… psychologists sought to show that Man, once considered ‘the rational animal,’ was fundamentally irrational; Freudians found us filled with lust and socially destructive impulses; Marxists found human history dominated by greed and exploitation; sociobiologists found all aspects of human life dominated by ‘selfish’ drives to reproduce… [all finding that] human beings [are] massively self-deceived and considered such supposedly spiritual pursuits as art, religion, and philosophy to be covers for something shallower and far less noble than they appear… Many philosophers, who had once seen their discipline as a rational pursuit of fundamental truths about the nature of reality and our place in it, now denied that philosophy could tell us anything of such truths, if such truths even existed… My point here is that, whatever else may be said about [the preceding paragraph], all those cultural developments have at least one thing in common: cynicism… Subjectivism, non-cognitivism, and nihilism have been popular, in short, because they offer the modern mind the perverse pleasure of debunking morality.

Political correctness… [is] the imperative to avoid giving offense… [and] entails an extreme egalitarianism. To be politically correct, one must avoid saying that anyone is better than anyone else in any significant way… If there are real moral requirements, then presumably not everyone is satisfying them: sometimes, people do wrong. Some people might even have to be judged evil… In any case, if there are virtues and vices, then some people will surely turn out to have more virtues and fewer vices than others: won’t we then have to call these people ‘morally better’ than the others? But to say such a thing would surely offend those judged to be worse. Indeed, there are few more reliable ways of offending a person than calling him immoral.

If we judge, for example, that men and women really have equal rights, would we not be forced to conclude that Islamic culture is bad in a very significant respect– it embraces false moral beliefs and treats women wrongly? To say such a thing would surely offend Muslims… My purpose here is not to discuss Muslim culture, the nature of evil, alcoholism, and so on. My purpose is to explain the ascendance of moral anti-realism in modern times: the popularity of anti-realism, I believe, is in large part due to the perception that moral realism would force us into uncomfortable positions that would cause offense to certain groups.

Scientism… is a sort of exaggerated respect for science… Modern science is an excellent thing: it has given us unprecedented understanding of the world and unprecedented ability to modify the world to satisfy our needs and desires… Ethics is not part of hard science. Neither physics, nor chemistry, nor biology studies such things as ‘rightness’. Neither the theory of the big bang, nor quantum mechanics, nor the theory of evolution can explain why murder is wrong. The most that science might do is to explain the causes of human moral attitudes. Therefore, surely, the attitudes are all there is… Intuition is, putatively, not part of the scientific method. I think this is actually quite false– I think intuition is essential to science (In Defense of Pure Reason, Laurence BonJour, 1998, Cambridge University Press)– but it is widely believed to be true… If there were such a thing as intuition, then some knowledge would be different from scientific knowledge; therefore, surely there is no such thing as intuition.

The influence of such attitudes as scientism, cynicism, and political correctness is more subtle and insidious: these attitudes operate as biases, rather than explicit premises… That is why so many who hear about ethical intuitionism just consider it implausible on its face, for reasons they cannot articulate… The fact that moral realism causes some people to feel offended or hurts people’s feelings constitutes no evidence against it. The fact that science is good and science does not study value is no evidence against the reality of value.

Moral anti-realism undermines our sense of meaning in life, and this brings me to one of the reasons why I find ant-realism unbelievable. I think anti-realism really boils down to the view that nothing matters… [that] life has no meaning, because ‘meaning’ is one of those ‘spooky’, non-natural properties that anti-realists do not believe in.

Modern philosophers have tended to see science and mathematics as the paradigms of knowledge, and cases of unprovable knowledge as peripheral exceptions to the rule. But this, I realized, was severely skewed: unprovable knowledge is the norm. This is to say nothing against scientific or mathematical knowledge, but they are the exceptions — an ordinary person may live an entire life and never do one mathematical proof or scientific experiment. But each of us constantly comes to know [various unprovable knowledge].

Why should we behave morally? The ethical intuitionist’s answer is as follows. Our intuitions render us prima facie justified in adopting certain moral beliefs. Provided these moral beliefs survive any challenges from [arguments], they are justified tout court. These beliefs in themselves constitute reasons for action, in virtue of their evaluative content. There is no further question to answer as to why one should be motivated by correct evaluations; it is simply the nature of evaluation that it answers questions about what to do. To accept an evaluative judgment is to judge something as a reason for action– to accept the judgment that stealing is wrong, for example, is to accept another person’s ownership of x as a normative reason not to take x without his permission.

I [accept] that in the moral realm, things are, after all, essentially the way they appear. I have moral intuitions, just as nearly everyone else does. They seem to be cognitions of moral truths. It seems that such things as murder, torture, and theft are really wrong– and not just because I personally don’t like them. I lay no claim to infallibility, either for myself or for the human community; it is logically possible that I and the rest of humanity are radically deceived (it is also ‘possible’ in the same sense that we are all brains in vats). But shouldn’t we first see whether it can be maintained that everything is more or less the way it seems, before jumping to schizoid theories about radical delusions and errors? A plausible theory of morality cannot simply ignore our moral intuitions. Wouldn’t it be simplest to say that the reason why we have the intuition that pain is bad is because pain is, in fact, bad, and our intuition is our awareness of that fact?

Ethical Intuitionism, Dr. Michael Huemer, University of Colorado,

Customer: Singapore, Malaysia

It’s reached the point that some people think that an inclination to anger is a sign of honesty and that all who are most subject to it are commonly believed to be most free and easy… No other passion’s features are more disturbed. It turns the fairest faces foul and renders wild those that were utterly placid. Angry people lose all sense of propriety. If their dress is arranged comme il faut, they’ll tear it off and lose all concern for their appearance. If their hair is arranged attractively by nature or by art, it bristles as wildly as their minds. Their veins swell, their chests are shaken by rapid breathing, their necks strain with the frenzied eruption of their voice; their joints tremble, their hands are restless, their whole body is buffeted as if by waves.

What do you imagine the mind within looks like, when its outward appearance is so foul? How much more terrifying is its aspect within the breast, its breathing more ragged, its assault more focused, sure to burst if it doesn’t burst forth! Like the sight of enemies or wild beasts dripping with blood or going to the kill; like the underworld monsters poets have imagined, girt with serpents and breathing fire; like the most terrible divinities that issue from Hell to stir up war, spread discord among nations, and tear peace to shreds– that’s how we should picture anger in the mind’s eye: its eyes ablaze, making a din with its shrieking and bellowing and groaning and hissing and any sound that is more hateful, brandishing its weapons in both hands (nor indeed is it concerned to shield itself), fierce, bloody, scarred, and bruised by self-inflicted blows, striding in a frenzy, cloaked in darkness, attacking, laying waste, putting to flight, stirred in its travails by a hatred of everyone and everything– itself most of all– as it seeks to confound earth and sea and sky, if it can cause harm no other way, hating and hated at once.

Some angry people, as Sextius said, have benefited from looking in a mirror. They were taken aback to see such a great change in themselves: brought, as it were, to the scene of the crime, they didn’t recognize themselves– and how little of their true deformity did that image reflected in the mirror show them! If the mind could be made visible and shine forth in some material form, its black, blotchy, seething, twisted, swollen appearance would stun the viewers. Even now, when it makes its way through bones and flesh and so many other obstacles, its deformity is enormous: what if it could be shown uncovered? To be sure, you’ll believe that a mirror could deter no one from anger. Of course: someone who approaches a mirror in order to change himself has already changed.

Anger, Mercy, Revenge, Lucius Annaeus Seneca,

Gregarious Rats

The only actual evidence for the belief in drug-induced addiction comes 1) from the testimonials of some addicted people who believe that exposure to a drug caused them to “lose control” and 2) from some highly technical research on laboratory animals. These bits of evidence have been embellished in the news media to the point where the belief in drug-induced addiction has acquired the status of an obvious truth that requires no further testing. But the widespread acceptance of this belief is a better demonstration of the power of repetition than of the influence of empirical research, because the great bulk of empirical evidence runs against it.

Albino rats served as subjects and morphine hydrochloride, which is equivalent to heroin, as the experimental drug. Laboratory rats are gregarious, curious, active creatures. Their ancestors, wild Norway rats, are intensely social and hundreds of generations of laboratory breeding have left many social instincts intact. Therefore, it is conceivable that the self-medication hypothesis might provide the most parsimonious explanation for the self-administration of powerful drugs by rats that were raised in isolated metal cages and subjected to surgical implantations in the hands of a eager (but seldom skillful) graduate student followed by being tethered in a self-injection apparatus. The results of self-injection experiments would not show that claim B was true so much as that severely distressed animals, like severely distressed people, will relieve their distress pharmacologically if they can.

My colleagues at Simon Fraser University and I built the most natural environment for rats that we could contrive in the laboratory. “Rat Park”, as it came to be called, was airy and spacious, with about 200 times the square footage of a standard laboratory cage. It was also scenic, (with a peaceful British Columbia forest painted on the plywood walls), comfortable (with empty tins, wood scraps, and other desiderata strewn about on the floor), and sociable (with 16-20 rats of both sexes in residence at once).

In the rat cages, the rats’ appetite for morphine was measured by fastening two drinking bottles, one containing a morphine solution and one containing water, on each cage and weighing them daily. In Rat Park, measurement of individual drug consumption was more difficult, since we did not want to disrupt life in the presumably idyllic rodent community. We built a short tunnel opening into Rat Park that was just large enough to accommodate one rat at a time. At the far end of the tunnel, the rats could release a fluid from either of two drop dispensers. One dispenser contained a morphine solution and the other an inert solution. The dispenser recorded how much each rat drank of each fluid.

A number of experiments were performed in this way (for a more detailed summary, see Alexander et al., 1985), all of which indicated that rats living in Rat Park had little appetite for morphine. In some experiments, we forced the rats to consume morphine for weeks before allowing them to choose, so that there could be no doubt that they had developed strong withdrawal symptoms. In other experiments, I made the morphine solution so sickeningly sweet that no rat could resist trying it, but we always found less appetite for morphine in the animals housed in Rat Park. Under some conditions the animals in the cages consumed nearly 20 times as much morphine as the rats in Rat Park. Nothing that we tried instilled a strong appetite for morphine or produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment.

There was a time when society spoke with unshakable certainty of the terrifying dangers that resulted from even a word of religious heresy and of the incurable consequences of occasional childhood masturbation. At the time, terrifying rhetoric seemed necessary to frighten people away from socially unacceptable behaviours. But the consequences were brutal. Moreover, the scare tactics eventually lost their power anyway. Much the same seems to be occurring now, as both the brutality and the futility of the “War on Drugs” are becoming more and more evident. There are times in history when society is better served by dispassionate information than by manufactured fear.

My hope is that this quick survey of the illusory scientific support for the conventional belief that heroin and cocaine cause addiction can help to show why society should turn away from this unsupported belief. Understanding that there may not be any inherent addictive power in drugs could help to turn us toward a broader, more efficacious formulation of the causes of addiction in our time, and of the huge, dismal saga of tragedy that it produces.

The Myth of Drug-Induced Addiction, Bruce K. Alexander, Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University,

Political Irrationality

Normally, intelligence and education are aides to acquiring true beliefs. But when an individual has non-epistemic belief preferences, this need not be the case; high intelligence and extensive knowledge of a subject may even worsen an individual’s prospects for obtaining a true belief. The reason is that a biased person uses his intelligence and education as tools for rationalizing beliefs. Highly intelligent people can think of rationalizations for their beliefs in situations in which the less intelligent would be forced to give up and concede error, and highly educated people have larger stores of information from which to selectively search for information supporting a desired belief. Thus, it is nearly impossible to change an academic’s mind about anything important, particularly in his own field of study. This is particularly true of philosophers (my own occupation), who are experts at argumentation.

Why People Are Irrational about Politics, Dr. Michael Huemer, University of Colorado,


One can choose not to pay a fine, one can choose to drive without a license, and one can even choose not to walk to a police car to be taken away. But one cannot choose not to be subjected to physical force if the agents of the state decide to impose it.

Thus, a crucial element of the legal system–in a sense, the basis of the legal system–is intentional, harmful coercion. To justify a law, one must justify imposition of that law on the population through a threat of harm, including the coercive imposition of actual harm on those who are caught violating the law. In common sense morality, the threat or actual coercive imposition of harm is normally wrong, other things being equal, and such actions require a special justification. This may be because of the way in which coercion disrespects persons, seeking to bypass their reason and manipulate them through fear, or the way in which it seems to deny the autonomy and equality of other persons.

The central concern is the evaluation of our moral attitudes toward government: Are governments really ethically entitled to do the things we usually take them to be entitled to do? Are we really ethically obligated to obey governments in the ways we usually take ourselves to be obligated?

Questions of this kind are notoriously difficult. How should we approach them? One approach would be to start from some comprehensive moral theory–say, utilitarianism, or Kantian deontology–and attempt to deduce from the theory the appropriate conclusions about political rights and obligations. I, unfortunately, cannot do this. I cannot do it because I do not know the correct general moral theory, and I don’t think anyone else does either. The reasons for my skepticism are difficult to communicate and will not be adequately communicated here. They derive from reflection on the problems of moral philosophy and on the complex, confusing, and constantly disputed literature about those problems. They derive from the experience of seeing one theory after another run into a morass of puzzles and problems, and seeing this morass become ever more complicated as more philosophers work on it. I do not see any way to bring a reader to the state of skepticism about moral theory that I consider appropriate, apart from asking the reader to delve into that literature himself. Here, then, I shall simply announce that I will not assume any comprehensive moral theory, and I think we should be very skeptical of any attempt to arrive at sound conclusions in political philosophy by starting from such a general theory. Nor, for similar reasons, do I start by assuming any general political theory (though I hope to arrive at a political theory in the end).

What is the alternative? I aim to start from moral claims that are, initially, relatively uncontroversial. This seems an obvious plan. Political philosophy is a difficult field. If we hope to make progress, we cannot start reasoning from a contentious moral theory; still less can we begin by assuming a contentious political ideology. Our premises should be things that, for example, both liberals and conservatives would typically find obvious at first glance. We must then attempt to reason from these premises to conclusions about the contested questions that interest us. The process will no doubt be more difficult and more involved than this simple description makes it sound; nevertheless, surely this is the correct general approach. Yet, natural as it may seem, this approach is seldom taken up.

Some philosophers believe that in doing moral philosophy, one should rely only upon abstract ethical principles, refusing to trust intuitive ethical judgments about specific cases. Others believe, more or less, that only judgments about particular cases should be relied upon. Still others think that no ethical judgments can be relied upon, and that there is no moral knowledge. All of those views strike me as wrong. What seems right is that controversial ethical judgments tend to be unreliable, whereas obvious, uncontroversial ethical judgments–whether specific or general–tend to be reliable. As to those who believe there is no moral knowledge, I cannot take time to address their position in this book; for present purposes, I shall assume that we have moral knowledge, and that our clearest, most widely-shared ethical judgments are instances of such knowledge.

In contemporary political discourse, there is a vocal minority who advocate drastic reductions in the size of government. Often, they defend their views in practical terms (government programs don’t work) or in terms of absolutist claims about individual rights. But these arguments are not the main issue. I believe the true, underlying motivation is a broad skepticism about political authority: at bottom, the advocates of smaller government simply do not see why the government should be permitted to do things that no one else would be permitted to do. Even if you do not share this skeptical attitude, I would caution against simply dismissing the intuitions of those with differing ideologies. Human beings are highly fallible in political philosophy, and clashes of intuitions are frequent. If we wish to be objective, we must each give serious consideration to the possibility that it is we who have the mistaken intuitions.

My political philosophy is a form of anarchism. In my experience, most people appear to be convinced that anarchism is obvious nonsense, an idea that can be refuted inside of 30 seconds with minimal reflection. This was roughly my attitude, before I knew anything about the theory. And it is also my experience that those who harbor this attitude have no idea what anarchists actually think–how anarchists think society should function or how they respond to the 30-second objections. Anarchists face a catch-22: most people will not give anarchists a serious hearing, because they are convinced at the start that the position is crazy; they are convinced that the position is crazy, because they do not understand it; and they do not understand it, because they will not give it a serious hearing. I therefore ask the reader not to give up reading this book merely because of its conclusion. The author is neither stupid, nor crazy, nor evil; he has a reasoned account of how a stateless society might function. I cannot promise that you will find the account ultimately convincing. But it is very likely that you will find it to have been worth considering.

First Chapter of Upcoming Book, Dr. Michael Huemer, University of Colorado,