Is an involuntary samaritan good? And can libertarians support a “good samaritan” law?

This post is a slightly revised version of two comments I left on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog in response to Matt Zwolinski’s post “What We Can Learn from Drowning Children.”

In his post, Zwolinski takes Bryan Caplan to task for arguing that there is not much we are morally required to do for a stranger. Caplan couches his discussion in the context of what we are within our rights to do; in this case, to not help strangers if we so choose. I don’t know if Caplan would go further and say that we don’t have much in the way of unenforceable positive moral obligations to strangers, i.e., things that we should do even though we have a right not to. But I think Zwolinski takes him to hold this. In any case, they’re two separate issues; it is quite possible to be a libertarian who thinks that we do have some unenforceable positive moral obligations to strangers.

But Zwolinski goes beyond making the case for this. He actually argues that we do have enforceable positive moral obligations to strangers, i.e., that we don’t have a right not to help them and that others have a right to force us to do so and, I suppose, punish us if we do not.

Zwolinski also seems to be arguing in favor of “enforceable collective duties,” including wealth redistribution by the state. It sure seems like he is heading in that direction toward the end of his post.

Moreover, part of Bryan’s argument actually counts against viewing those obligations as individual, private duties and in favor of viewing them as collective duties that should be coercively enforced. In other words, Bryan’s given us no reason here to oppose institutionalizing the duty to rescue in the form of a state-funded minimal social safety net.

I hope Zwolinski isn’t arguing in favor of this. Libertarians oppose wealth redistribution by the state.

Given his line of argument in his post, I wonder if he has any principled arguments against wealth redistribution by the state — assuming he is against it, that is. If he does have such arguments, I’d like to see them. It would help reassure many people that bleeding-heart libertarianism really is a form of libertarianism rather than welfare “liberalism” lite. Consider it a challenge.

I”m a virtue ethicist, not a consequentialist or a deontologist. I don’t see that there is any such thing as “collective duties,” much less enforceable ones. I can see a moral obligation to save a drowning child, depending on context — but not a duty, not a universal and absolute rule, much less a law to enforce it.

Moreover, the way Zwolinski frames the debate assumes a modern statist system of law and punishment. What is he going to do to people who break his “good samaritan” law?

Put them in prison? Many libertarians, such as myself, don’t approve of prison systems; they amount to enslavement systems.

Extract restitution? That’s more like it, assuming the obligation is enforceable. But still…

None of this will bring the child back to life. None of this will necessarily force someone to be a “good samaritan.” Indeed, an involuntary samaritan is not a good samaritan.

And how would he enforce the law? Put up CCTV cameras everywhere to make sure everyone is complying with his “good samaritan” law? Encourage neighbors to snitch on one another? That hardly sounds libertarian.

Why not look to boycotting and ostracism as adequate methods of dealing with anti-social people who do particularly heinous things that they have a right to do? You don’t even need a “good samaritan” law for this. It’s purely voluntary and can be quite effective. Just shun the bastards.

I think it’s inappropriate and invalid to generalize moral principles from lifeboat situations and other emergencies and edge cases; a code of ethics is first and foremost for everyday life and we must use prudence in applying it to such rare cases, not the other way round. It’s even more wrong to generate laws from such uncommon cases.

Why is Zwolinski so worried about an enforceable obligation to save a drowning child in the first place? As he says, the passing-stranger-and-drowning-child scenario is “a bizarrely rare occurrence.” Even more uncommon is the passing-stranger-lets-the-child-drown scenario. Is this something we really need to worry about in a free society? Drowning children everywhere for want of a “good samaritan” because “there oughta be a law!”? To riff on Michael Barnett’s point in the comments, the path of the moralistic do-gooder busybody is a dangerous one to start out on; it’s bad for one’s character and leads away from libertarianism.

Zwolinski also wondered,

Why, oh why, does it always have to be about guns for libertarians? Yes, I know that in some ultimate sense, every law is backed by the threat of violence. If you break the speed limit and are sent a fine, and don’t pay it, and resist when the cops show up at your house, and resist very effectively when they try to physically force you into their car, then eventually they very well might take out their gun. But that just. doesn’t. mean. that posting a speed limit sign is the same thing as pointing a gun at you. Or even the moral equivalent of doing so.

No, it’s not morally equivalent; it’s more cowardly. It’s voting for and “hiring” someone else to use the gun.

It’s perfectly valid to ask someone if they would be willing to point a gun at you, and use it, to enforce some statist law or regulation they’re proposing or defending. If they are willing to do so, well, that shows their depravity clearly and puts you on notice that they’re not fit for civilized society. If they aren’t willing to do so, but are willing to vote and pay (or rather, force someone else to pay) for someone else to do it, I think that speaks to a certain level of cowardice and probably in many cases an unwillingless to fully accept what their beliefs entail. The statist-democratic process allows people the illusion that the laws and regulations they favor are voluntary and legitimate. Somehow the state magically transforms actions that we normally consider evil by private individuals into good when performed by agents of the state. The state is the great transvaluer of values — the coldest of all cold monsters.

The reason it always has to be about guns for libertarians is that we’re opposed to the threat or use of initiatory physical force, so when someone insists we have a duty to do something we want to know if they plan to initiate force to make us to do it against our will. If they do, then we know to do evil to impose their values on others, that they’re uncivilized, and that they’re not libertarian. We live in an unlibertarian world full of such people, so yes, it’s always rightfully on our minds. That doesn’t mean we all think there are no unenforceable positive moral obligations. We just like to make sure you will respect our rights first before we enter into largely academic discussions about what one should do in certain rare emergencies.

Maybe I’m becoming a cranky old man before my time, but more and more these days I’m finding these sorts of discussions strike me as unnecessary mental masturbation — something to which I think philosophers and libertarians are particularly prone. Most people don’t see any need to discuss it; they would just jump in and save the child. In the moral (not the political/legal) sense, it’s not a matter of choice — it’s just the right thing to do (HT Mal). Yes, even in the eyes of adjectiveless libertarians.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I was going to make a comment supporting your post, but apparently your automated comment filter thought my comment was too insignificant to allow. So, instead I’ll simply make this complaint about that.

    • Sorry. I don’t see your comment in the moderation queue. If it was there, I’d release it into the wild.

  • I believe his main point is to establish the minimal moral obligation. Now that we all agree that there is said obligation then anyone not saving the child is leaving it up to others to perform the duty that she herself admitted was a moral obligation.

    Redistribution has independent lines of arguments, but insofar as the number of drowning children increase (or starving poor) then those who do not fulfill their duty that everyone recognizes as an obligation, they are free-riding off the duty of others. This is how enforceable action would arise: We all agree that we have minimal moral duties which have minimal infringements of our liberties (like wet shoes), so to avoid free-riders, we tax. In the world where there were no freeriders, no tax is necessary.