Thursday, November 08, 2012

Normativity and objective/subjective determinability

Andrew Louis and Eli Horowitz both have extensive and thoughtful responses to my recent post, Social constructions and Libertarianism.

I want to first respond to them indirectly; my original piece was not, I think, a model of clarity, so I want to try again.

Our primary task is to justify the normative aspects of ethical and political ideas. Without too much controversy (excluding the more extreme postmodernists and epistemic relativists), we can justify descriptive aspects of any set of ideas using the scientific method. It's a more problematic task to justify normativity.

To capture these problems, I want to introduce some terms with specific meanings. The first term is consistently determinable; an statement is consistently determinable if, given a context, i.e. some statements and inference rules, everyone will consistently assent or dissent to some statement. A statement for which assent is consistently determinable in some context is valid relative to that context; a statement for which dissent is consistently determinable is invalid; and a statement for which neither assent nor dissent is consistently determinable is indeterminate. Thus, given the axioms and inference rules of arithmetic, for example, everyone will consistently assent that "2 + 2 = 4"; it is a valid statement of arithmetic.

The next terms are objective and subjective. The use of these terms in general philosophical use varies, so I want to be precise about how I'm using them: the objective pertains to the world outside our minds, and the subjective pertains to our minds directly. The union of the objective and the subjective constitute the real: although no unicorns objectively exist, a thought about a unicorn is still a real thought. Similarly, gravity objectively exists, and the law of gravity, i.e. our thoughts about gravity, also subjectively exists.*

*I don't want to get into a theory of truth, but we can say, glossing over a lot of philosophical problems that are not pertinent here, that because our subjective thoughts about gravity seem in some sense to "match" the objective nature of gravity, our subjective thoughts seem in some sense to be "true."

We can combine these ideas. A statement that is consistently determinable without introducing any properties of any minds is objectively determinable. A statement that requires introducing properties of minds to be consistently determinable is subjectively determinable in this sense. This construction can be extremely problematic: it is not at all obvious how to operationalize objective determinability. But I think we can handwave over these objectives for the present moment; my terminology captures, I think, some deep intuitions about the world works, and how our minds conceptualize the world.

Using this terminology, I can express my earlier point more succinctly: all consistently determinable normative statements are subjectively determinable. We must in some way reference the contents of people's minds to consistently determine normative statements.

To illustrate this concept, I divide our notions about property into two classes: the objectively determinable components, which I label more-or-less arbitrarily as possession, and our normative, (potentially) subjectively determinable components as ownership. Thus the statement "Alice possesses that specific blue 2010 Honda Civic" is by definition objectively determinable: we would expect that even a space alien with no knowledge at all about our minds could tell whether or not Alice possesses that specific car: they might observe, for example, that Alice uses the car often and maintains consistent control over it. On the other hand, "Alice owns that specific car" is by definition subjectively determinable: our hypothetical space aliens would necessarily have to learn something about our minds to determine Alice's ownership. Again, these are just arbitrary distinctions for the purpose of clarity.

Given these distinctions, there seem to be two arguable positions about the relationship between ownership and possession. The first is that ownership directly matches possession: given some objectively determinable definition of possession, anyone who possesses an object always owns it. The second is that ownership does not directly match possession: we must in some sense know a lot of things about people's minds to determine whether or not someone owns something; for any objectively determinable definition of possession, it will be the case that people can possess things they do not own and own things they do not possess. Note that the specific definition of possession is irrelevant; what is relevant is only that possession is by definition objectively determinable.

(We can also exclude the case where, by dint of careful examination, we might be able to objectively determine ownership, but only at the "cost" of having enough information about the world to make good inferences about people's minds. Minds are just as real as rocks and trees, and all of reality is causally interconnected; the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity is a distinction of convenience, not a fundamental dualism.)

So finally, after a lot of tedious philosophy, we come to my two main objections to Libertarianism.

The first is that we have a lot of intuitions about ownership that are based directly on possession, and Libertarians use those intuitions as normative justification. If I really possess something, it takes objectively determinable initiation of physical force to expropriate the object without my consent. We need the things we use and possess, and we resent people forcing us to do things without our individual consent. These intuitions are not, by and large, problematic. Even a committed communist such as myself admits that I possess my car, for example; I use it, and I maintain control over it, I need it; and I would be quite peeved if anyone, including the state, arbitrarily expropriated it by force. So these intuitions are not problematic. However, the Libertarian argument then typically "subjectivizes" what appear to be the objectively determinable notions of possession and the initiation of coercion: the subjectively determinable legitimate employment of coercion, to enforce an agreement, for example, is not the "initiation" of coercion. Because Alice subjectively determinably owns something, she thereby possesses it; because she owns something, her use of coercion cannot be initiation. This justification is disingenuous because it intentionally confuses objective and subjectively determinable considerations.

The point is only that this particular justification is untenable. The point is not that people should or should not only own what they possess, nor is the point that a bad justification renders a proposition false. The point is simply that this particular justification, using our intuitions about objectively determinable states to justify states that can be only subjectively determinable, is disingenuous.

9 comments:

  1. "The first is that ownership directly matches possession: given some objectively determinable definition of possession, anyone who possesses an object always owns it."

    This doesn't seem right to me. I can possesses something (whether in a very narrow sense like simply having it in my hands and under my control) or in a broader sense (like yours - controlling and using it over an extended period of time) without also owning it.

    A long-term loan is an easy example. A book borrowed from the library is another. I won't get into renting and leasing, since that will come with other issues for your argument.

    Another easy example is stolen goods - it's why we have a crime of being in possession of stolen goods (which you did not steal). I can be in possession of stolen goods for decades, completely ignorant of their origin, but once the truth comes out I have turn them over without any compensation because I never really owned them. It wouldn't matter if I've spent a lot of money to protect or insure them, they don't technically belong to me even though everyone will agree 100% that I "possessed" them all that time.

    Your statement might be true if changed to "almost always," but not "always." I think that people have an easy time with a common sense notion that people can possess things they do not own, both legitimately and illegitimately.

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  2. You are not reading carefully. I'm simply laying out two propositions as mutually exclusive, alternative possibilities. Clearly, the second alternative seems to more accurately reflect our modern intuitions about ownership.

    However, one might that a long term loan ought not to establish ownership, that a library ought not to maintain ownership when someone took a book, and that if I were to manage to successfully acquire goods you used to possess by force, fraud, or stealth, I ought then to own those goods.

    Such a position would obviously differ from our existing intuitions (and it would be a real mistake to say that it did match those intuitions), but as a normative statement, it would not be mistaken about any objective fact.

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  3. It is, I will repeat, tedious to discuss philosophy with someone who neither reads the written material thoroughly, carefully, and accurately, nor reads my instructions deprecating anonymous commentary.

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  4. I am a bit unclear. Are you saying that the libertarian position is that "ownership" establishes a "right" to take possession? Enforcement of possession is therefore merely the continuation of the status quo (under this interpretation)?

    It seems that we need a new concept - the right to enforce possession, which is separate from ownership. For example, if someone dies without a will, their spouse may be entitled to live in a house until they themselves die, even though the ownership has transfered to someone else. This entitlement will depend on the structures that exist in their state or community. The strict libertarian would presumably argue that the owner should be allowed to take possesion at any time and evict the spouse. (Although some libertarians may believe that this transfer was not "voluntary" - even though the deceased did have an opportunity to make a will had the so desired).

    In this case there is a strong argument for a "right to possession" of the spouse, as well as a right to possession of the owner. There is nothing inherently correct about the libertarians preference for the rights of the owner to be respected more than the spouse. In this case, owneship does not equate to right to possess.

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    1. Are you saying that the libertarian position is that "ownership" establishes a "right" to take possession? Enforcement of possession is therefore merely the continuation of the status quo (under this interpretation)?

      I'm not a Libertarian, so I can't speak as an insider, but, yes, the right to regain physical possession seems an indispensable element of ownership.

      If someone dies without a will, their spouse may be entitled to live in a house until they themselves die, even though the ownership has transfered to someone else.

      Dunno. If an owner dies intestate, I don't think that anyone, except perhaps any remaining occupants, have an unambiguous claim of ownership.

      he strict libertarian would presumably argue that the owner should be allowed to take possesion at any time and evict the spouse.

      I don't necessarily think so. Rights can be modified or waived by agreement. Furthermore, I don't think Libertarian theory needs to be any particular way about situations where rightful ownership is in real doubt, such as intestate inheritance; they can leave those particular issues to the general social process. As I read it, Libertarianism is about legitimatizing particular ways of ownership and transfer, but when those ways are not operative, there are no canonical answers.

      I'm not sure that delving into this or that detail of a Libertarian legal theory is all that valuable, though, and it certainly doesn't address the mode of justification that I'm talking about here.

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  5. "all consistently determinable normative statements are subjectively determinable. We must in some way reference the contents of people's minds to consistently determine normative statements."

    Aye. I still disagree with your examples - I still think that possession has some normative content, or at least some sort of human/social idiosyncrasy - but this principle is the main point, and I wholeheartedly endorse it.

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    1. I still think that possession has some normative content.

      Remember, I'm using "possession" and "ownership" as more-or-less arbitrarily chosen labels in this particular post to label objectively determinable and subjectively determinable aspects of property rights, respectively. I am not saying that it is illegitimate in other contexts to use either word with different meanings.

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    2. Sure - I mean, your specific case of "would an alien be able to tell who possesses my car." Much though I see the intuitive appeal of that argument, it still seems to me that you're tacitly attributing just the right social mindset to that alien in order to get the thought experiment to work out.

      Or maybe this would be the better way of putting it: I don't trust such an alien to be able to detect possession from apparent possession except in the most obvious and straightforward of cases. So I guess I do agree that there are obvious and straightforward cases, and of course you can always define the word so that it's limited to the obvious and straightforward cases. But the thing about the car...I dunno, I just don't think that it's as obvious and straightforward as you evidently do. Use is not an obvious and straightforward thing that you can just observe, I don't think, nor is consistency or oftenness; those latter two, at the very least, are defined relative to human time scales and human patterns of behavior (and, indeed, relative to adult, probably western human time scales and behavior patterns: children get confused all the time about who possesses what because their idea of consistent use is different than ours).

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  6. You guys are just way to fast for me! I've tried to come back to this.

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