I’m rereading Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia because I got to thinking: what’s wrong with good old fashioned ‘force and fraud’ anyway? Isn’t the Night Watchman state just creeping Soft Tyranny, in Tocqueville’s sense? Plus it’s obviously a moral hazard and generally destructive to private virtue.
So Nozick seemed like relevant reading. Some unsystematic liveblogging:
First, Nozick is amusingly harsh, in passing, to fellow libertarians.
Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid, and filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being, my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company.
The next time someone tells you that Corey Robin is paranoid, just explain to them that actually you are an orthodox Nozickian about these things.
Next, this classic bit:
One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things to fit into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another. You run around and press in the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they’ll fit and you press in until finally almost everything sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn’t gets heaved far away so that it won’t be noticed.
This is true!
Next, he spends a great deal of time answering my question. 150 pages. Why have even a minimal state that secures everyone against force and fraud? I know now that his answer is … really quite complicated and ultimately not altogether clear, despite the fact that Nozick is generally a clear writer. I’m not convinced Nozick really has any right, by his lights, to a full-fledged Night Watchman state. Something more minimal would be more respectful of the individual rights that we are, supposedly, respecting at all costs, seems to me.
But that’s more than I can put in a post, so let’s consider a different issue:
If someone picks up a third party and throws him at you down at the bottom of a deep well, the third party is innocent and a threat; had he chosen to launch himself at you in that trajectory he would be an aggressor. Even though the falling person would survive his fall onto you, may you use your ray gun to disintegrate the falling body before it crushes and kills you? (p. 33-4)
Let me propose a principle (or maybe it’s a fallacy): Occam’s Phaser. Do not compound the silliness of your examples beyond necessity.
It’s perfectly easy to construct a vanilla life-or-death case in which someone uses someone as a human shield without throwing anyone down a well or arming anyone with a phaser set on disintegrate, let alone both. And certainly there is no need to be simulataneously generous with the outlandish stage-dressings and utterly unforthcoming about what’s going on, onstage. Who are these people?
So why go for the phaser option?
It is often suggested that philosophers (or analytic philosophers, or Anglo-American philosophers, call us what you will) are just somehow autistic about this stuff. We write examples as if we’ve read about humans in books but never actually met one. But this is a mistake. Philosophers (or analytic philosophers, or Anglo-American philosophers) may be autistic – it is possible some at the mild end of that scale may find refuge in our tribe – but what we tend to be, in our choice of examples, is mildly whimsical. Whimsy is not the same as Asperger Syndrome. In academic philosophy example selection, there is an aesthetic of sustained, low-grade whimsy; odd-angle cases, with curiously crinkly edges, that scrupulously fail to rise to the level of being outright jokes, but that faintly tickle the funny bone. I think it’s probably originally an Ox-Bridge thing. Be that as it may, it may be a problem. Or maybe not.
What is the typical effect of offering half a phaser-down-a-well case (i.e. you provide lurid incidentals while omitting the core of the human drama – who are these people?) when you could perfectly well have offered a full ordinary case. Some plausible human shield scenario, with plausible context and motives sketched in.
I think it’s fair to say that the effect of narrating half a phaser-down-a-well case is the opposite of what it is often advertised to be. Such cases are supposed to function as ‘intuition pumps’. Trolley cars. People who wake up attached to famous violinists. You know the score. But really they are the opposite. (You could call them ‘intuition pumps’, but only if you meant by that the opposite of what people actually mean by that; if you meant that they that pump intuitions out, not in.) What these examples really are, if anything, is principle pumps. You nudge for a response while depriving people of the sorts of thick descriptive detail that would usually ground intuitive responses. If you are nudged to respond, and the only way to respond is to come up with an abstract principle for dealing with an abstractly indicated set of cases, then you will tend to respond by coming up with an abstract principle for dealing with an abstractly delimited set of cases. Which begs the question: ought I to respond to human shield cases with an abstract principle for dealing with an abstractly delimited set of human shield cases?
The human shield case makes this clear. Any realistic case – a criminal using a human shield to try to get away from the police; a terrorist; an enemy soldier – is going to get a very strong ‘intuitive’ response, one way or another. But that is obviously precisely what Nozick does not want. Really what he wants is to peel back our intuitions, put a principle in place, and start reconstructing our intuitions on that basis. Possibly this is the right thing to do. Or possible not.
What do you think: is Occam’s Phaser a sound principle, or a fallacy, or what?
When is it appropriate to use silly examples, to pump our intuitions out, the better to get clear about principles, and when isn’t it?
UPDATE: I was initially unclear in using the terms ‘principle’ and ‘fallacy’. Edited for clarity, accordingly. But maybe my usage is still unclear. But I hope you get the idea.
UPDATE THE 2ND: