Against the presumption of open borders. Border policy agnosticism.

Libertarians cannot assume that a state-controlled open border policy is automatically a more libertarian option than the state restrictively policing the border. This second article on the subject draws on conversations that happened since I published the first, and includes insights that I believe make the case easier to communicate.

The thief and the farm

Here’s a thought experiment described by Chase Rachels. It helps establish a couple of principles that are useful for thinking about state-imposed border policy. More on that later.

Imagine that a thief steals a large amount of money from persons A, B, and C. Imagine that he uses the money to have a farm built, and imagine that the farm is the only valuable thing that the thief has to his name. For whatever reason, the theft isn’t corrected, the thief isn’t brought to justice, his victims don’t get their money back.

Which policy sees more justice done?

Consider two different approaches that the thief could take to the management of the farm and notice which approach you think delivers a greater degree of justice.

  1. Against the unanimous wishes of the victims, the thief allows all-comers to use the farm as they wish, turning it into an effective commons.
  2. In accordance with the unanimous wishes of the victims, the thief allows only the three victims to freely use the farm. He excludes anyone else from using it, using force if necessary to do so.

I believe the policy of exclusion is clearly better, no matter how many people the thief ends up forcefully excluding. I hope you agree.


Assuming you agree, this view has implications that are relevant to thinking about border policy controlled by a state:

  1. A resource created or improved using stolen funds, at least under some circumstances, should be considered the property of the victims of the theft. To see this is true consider the following: If a resource created this way should always be considered unowned there could be no justification for preferring the thief to violently exclude an arbitrarily large number of people from its use; These exclusions would be new rights violations, and at some point these new violations, taken together, must be more severe than the injustice suffered by the original victims of theft.
  2. Partial restitution doesn’t need to be made in the form of money to be effective. It can also be made by implementing use rules for the resource that the victims like more, instead of rules they like less.

The borders controlled by the state

Libertarians agree that the state violates the rights of many people on an ongoing basis through taxation, war, prosecution of victimless crimes and other predations.

These violations entitle the victims of the state to restitution from that state.

What about restitution in the form of fiat currency?

Critics of the first article often proposed that restitution could be made in the form of a transfer of fiat currency.

But since the desirability of fiat currency is contingent on the state violate the rights of taxpayers in the future by demanding taxes denominated in the local units – it’s unlikely that people would choose to hold and accept it otherwise – awards in the form of fiat currency are not suitable as restitution.

Developed public property is owned by victims

The most appropriate asset the state controls that can be used for restitution is developed public land.

The state can provide some restitution to a victim by permitting them to use public property. But in many cases this compensation doesn’t seem likely to cover the whole of the debt. Here’s another hypothetical that I hope helps to support that intuition:

If I used the threat of violence to get you to work for me every Thursday, and used your forced labour to build a tree house, I don’t believe my debt to you would be absolved by permitting you to merely use the tree house afterwards. At minimum, Justice demands that you become the owner of the tree house – so that I have no further say in how it gets used – at least if we assume my other assets combined don’t represent equivalent market value.

So to me it seems plausible that those with the best ownership claim to developed private property are the people who make up the state’s victim population.

Exclusion via border control doesn’t necessarily violate rights

This ownership claim is significant in this context because if the victim population own public property, it cannot be assumed a priori that any non-victim’s rights are being violated if the local state denies them entry to it; there’s no automatic right to access another person’s property.

Simultaneous gains and losses in justice

By admitting immigrants from group X (in other words, by allowing them to use developed public property) the state diminishes the restitution it is providing to every member of its victim population who prefers that members of group X be excluded from developed public property.

But by excluding members of group X the state diminishes the restitution it is providing to every member of its victim population who would like members of group X to have access to developed public property.

By adopting an active border policy the state may require a greater degree of tax funding – which inherently entails rights violations. This is a consideration that counts in favor of open borders, but is not dispositive.

Border agnosticism

Bearing the above considerations in mind, while the state controls borders, is isn’t feasible to determine which policy – open vs restrictive – constitutes a greater degree of justice delivered, or a lesser degree of rights violated, in any particular case.

The best we can do at the moment is guess. So the proper libertarian position is to admit as much, and reject open borders as an a priori conclusion.

Further reading

Tomasz Kaye : Against the presumption of open borders. The libertarian argument from imperfect restitution.

Stephan Kinsella : A Simple Libertarian Argument Against Unrestricted Immigration and Open Borders

Chase Rachels : The libertarian case AGAINST open borders.

‘Vaccines are safe’ – An underdetermined claim

I don’t believe that the claim vaccines are safe is justified by the current state of scientific knowledge.

I’d better add the disclaimer that vaccines are harmful, is also a claim I believe is underdetermined by the evidence right now. And I’m satisfied that the claim vaccines are generally effective is true (i.e. Vaccines are useful for preventing the spread of the diseases they target).

There are lots of websites of doubtful credibility that make sensational claims about the dangers of vaccines. My skepticism isn’t motivated by those. I’ll explain as succinctly as I can where my reservations come from.

I’m sure that important parts of the dynamics of vaccination are well understood. But based on studies that I’ve read about, the precise effects of some adjuvants on the human body – particularly in the long run – do not seem to be well understood.

Aluminum adjuvants

Though not all vaccines contain aluminum, compelling evidence of risk associated with this ingredient would be enough to undermine the general claim that vaccines are safe.

Here are a few excerpts from studies on pubmed related to aluminum adjuvants * . I’ve added emphasis for if you’re in a hurry. I could link to more if I had the time. I think the sample below is enough to illustrate that there is space here for reasonable doubts about the long-term safety of vaccines containing aluminum as an adjuvant. See what you think.

Are there negative CNS impacts of aluminum adjuvants used in vaccines and immunotherapy?

In spite of a common view that aluminum (Al) salts are inert and therefore harmless as vaccine adjuvants or in immunotherapy, the reality is quite different. In the following article we briefly review the literature on Al neurotoxicity and the use of Al salts as vaccine adjuvants and consider not only direct toxic actions on the nervous system, but also the potential impact for triggering autoimmunity. Autoimmune and inflammatory responses affecting the CNS appear to underlie some forms of neurological disease, including developmental disorders. Al has been demonstrated to impact the CNS at every level, including by changing gene expression. These outcomes should raise concerns about the increasing use of Al salts as vaccine adjuvants and for the application as more general immune stimulants.

Aluminum in the central nervous system (CNS): toxicity in humans and animals, vaccine adjuvants, and autoimmunity.

injection of aluminum adjuvants in an attempt to model Gulf War syndrome and associated neurological deficits leads to an ALS phenotype in young male mice. In young children, a highly significant correlation exists between the number of pediatric aluminum-adjuvanted vaccines administered and the rate of autism spectrum disorders. Many of the features of aluminum-induced neurotoxicity may arise, in part, from autoimmune reactions, as part of the ASIA syndrome.

Aluminum adjuvant linked to Gulf War illness induces motor neuron death in mice.

Aluminum-treated groups also showed significant motor neuron loss (35%) and increased numbers of astrocytes (350%) in the lumbar spinal cord. The findings suggest a possible role for the aluminum adjuvant in some neurological features associated with GWI and possibly an additional role for the combination of adjuvants.

Biopersistence and brain translocation of aluminum adjuvants of vaccines.

We previously showed that poorly biodegradable aluminum-coated particles injected into muscle are promptly phagocytosed in muscle and the draining lymph nodes, and can disseminate within phagocytic cells throughout the body and slowly accumulate in brain. This strongly suggests that long-term adjuvant biopersistence within phagocytic cells is a prerequisite for slow brain translocation and delayed neurotoxicity. The understanding of basic mechanisms of particle biopersistence and brain translocation represents a major health challenge, since it could help to define susceptibility factors to develop chronic neurotoxic damage.

Non-linear dose-response of aluminium hydroxide adjuvant particles: Selective low dose neurotoxicity.

An unusual neuro-toxicological pattern limited to a low dose of Alhydrogel® was observed. Neurobehavioural changes, including decreased activity levels and altered anxiety-like behaviour, were observed compared to controls in animals exposed to 200μg Al/kg but not at 400 and 800μg Al/kg. Consistently, microglial number appeared increased in the ventral forebrain of the 200μg Al/kg group. Cerebral Al levels were selectively increased in animals exposed to the lowest dose, while muscle granulomas had almost completely disappeared at 6 months in these animals. We conclude that Alhydrogel® injected at low dose in mouse muscle may selectively induce long-term Al cerebral accumulation and neurotoxic effects. To explain this unexpected result, an avenue that could be explored in the future relates to the adjuvant size since the injected suspensions corresponding to the lowest dose, but not to the highest doses, exclusively contained small agglomerates in the bacteria-size range known to favour capture and, presumably, transportation by monocyte-lineage cells. In any event, the view that Alhydrogel® neurotoxicity obeys “the dose makes the poison” rule of classical chemical toxicity appears overly simplistic.

Aluminum hydroxide injections lead to motor deficits and motor neuron degeneration.

A second series of experiments was conducted on mice injected with six doses of aluminum hydroxide. Behavioural analyses in these mice revealed significant impairments in a number of motor functions as well as diminished spatial memory capacity. The demonstrated neurotoxicity of aluminum hydroxide and its relative ubiquity as an adjuvant suggest that greater scrutiny by the scientific community is warranted.

Systematic review of potential health risks posed by pharmaceutical, occupational and consumer exposures to metallic and nanoscale aluminum, aluminum oxides, aluminum hydroxide and its soluble salts.

Conclusions from the current review point to the need for refinement of the PTWI, reduction of Al contamination in PN solutions, justification for routine addition of Al to vaccines, and harmonization of OELs for Al substances.

A role for the body burden of aluminium in vaccine-associated macrophagic myofasciitis and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Herein, we have described a case of vaccine-associated chronic fatigue syndrome and macrophagic myofasciitis in an individual demonstrating aluminium overload. This is the first report linking the latter with either of these two conditions and the possibility is considered that the coincident aluminium overload contributed significantly to the severity of these conditions in this individual. This case has highlighted potential dangers associated with aluminium-containing adjuvants and we have elucidated a possible mechanism whereby vaccination involving aluminium-containing adjuvants could trigger the cascade of immunological events which are associated with autoimmune conditions including chronic fatigue syndrome and macrophagic myofasciitis.

Aluminum adjuvants of vaccines injected into the muscle: Normal fate, pathology and associated disease.

Aluminum oxyhydroxide (Alhydrogel(®)) is a nano-crystalline compound forming aggregates that has been introduced in vaccine for its immunologic adjuvant effect in 1926. It is the most commonly used adjuvant in human and veterinary vaccines but mechanisms by which it stimulates immune responses remain ill-defined. Although generally well tolerated on the short term, it has been suspected to occasionally cause delayed neurologic problems in susceptible individuals. In particular, the long-term persistence of aluminic granuloma also termed macrophagic myofasciitis is associated with chronic arthromyalgias and fatigue and cognitive dysfunction.


It might be objected that the risks associated with vaccines are outweighed by the risks of not vaccinating. There are two difficulties with that reply right now:

  1. Given the apparently poor state of our understanding of the long-term effects of vaccine ingredients on general health, it’s not clear how such a case could be made without new research being conducted.
  2. Let’s assume that it turns out to be true – Even well-nourished, healthy kids in western countries, living in areas with high vaccination rates, are better off getting vaccinated. This still doesn’t earn vaccination the description of safe. Jumping from a window high up in a burning building might be the least risky course of action. It would be misleading at best to declare that jumping was safe.

If I’m making some blunder here and the studies and reasoning above don’t warrant hesitation, I’d like to know why. I’m interested in the truth for its own sake, but it’d also make my life a good deal easier to believe that vaccines are safe.

Though most pubmed-listed studies are peer reviewed/refereed, some caution is required here since pubmed’s own pages don’t indicate whether a study is peer reviewed. Any help with checking the status of the studies in this article would be appreciated.

Human needs don’t exist

There are no human needs? What a monstrous thing to say! The very idea could only be entertained by someone living in relative comfort, someone whose needs are all taken care of – ‘I’ve got mine, screw you’ right?

I identify as a free market anarchist. Perhaps some will suspect that ideological convictions are leading me astray when I say that human needs don’t exist. I can imagine a defender of the state questioning my motives, for example. He or she might reason that because the modern state is the provider of people’s basic needs when other options fall through, the anarchist practises ‘need denial’ – either deliberately or subconsciously – in order to diminish the importance of the state.

This hypothetical statist is right at least about one thing: the way we think about human needs has political consequences. With my biases out in the open, I hope to explain why it’s correct to say that human needs don’t exist.

You can never be too careful?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs attaches the greatest importance to physiological needs. This category corresponds to the sense of ‘human needs’ or ‘basic needs’ that I’m interested in. Take the claim ‘Man needs food’. We can be confident that a person making this claim doesn’t have poisoned food in mind. Food is regarded as a needed good thanks to its ability to extend life. How can we justify granting a unique status to goods, like food, that extend life? One way would be to maintain that life is of infinite value. Indeed, many claim that ‘You can’t put a price on human life.’ But do we really believe that? Does extending our life trump all other valued ends?

All of us, including those who avow that human life is of infinite value, knowingly do certain things that prima facie reduce the portion of the future we’re likely to survive long enough to experience.

Everyone exposes themselves to an increased risk of death in order to satisfy other preferences they hold: risky sports, smoking, drinking alcohol, travelling by car, crossing the street, biking, going swimming, giving birth, eating food that hasn’t been pre-liquified to minimise the chance of choking; the list goes on.

Clearly most people do not place infinite value on extending their own lives. If they did, their lives would look very different.

In the brilliant little book The Machinery of Freedom, in a chapter entitled I Don’t Need Nothing, David Friedman explains the troubles we get into by entertaining the idea that life is infinitely valuable:

additional medical care continues to bring improved health up to a very high level of medical expenditure, probably up to the point where medicine would absorb the entire national income. Does that mean that we should satisfy our ‘need’ for medical care by having everyone in the country become a doctor, save those absolutely needed for the production of food and shelter? Obviously not. Such a society would be no more attractive than the ‘life’ of the man who really regarded his life as infinitely valuable.

This all gets us to the realisation that there’s no justification for treating life-extending goods and services as though they are qualitatively different to non-life-extending goods and services but virtue of their ability to extend life. Extending life is just one consideration among many that we (subconsciously) weigh against one another when choosing a course of action.

We all value extending human life to different degrees, and none of us assigns infinite value to this goal.

The most expensive life-support machine ever built

Imagine an old man, tired of life. He wants to die. Imagine also that at a cost of many thousands of dollars, a machine could be assembled and operated that would prolong his life. To me it feels grotesque, or at best misleading, to say that he needs this life support machine. I hope that your intuition agrees with mine on this: when considering conflicting goals related to the continuation of this person’s life, the goals of the old man himself must have priority.

It’s possible that the phrase ‘the old man needs the machine’ could be intended to communicate ‘without the machine the man will die’. The title of this article could be objected to on the grounds that human needs is harmless shorthand. ‘Bob needs food’ is just a quicker way of saying ‘Bob needs food if his goal is to extend his life’. But thinking clearly about such matters is already hard work. Do we really want to make contemplating important subjects even more difficult by using phrases that suggest dichotomies where none exist? By using this human needs shorthand we make the mistake of reification more likely, we risk fostering the belief that an unqualified need is something that can exist in reality.

Human needs is just shorthand, what’s the harm?

Friedman explains:

The idea of ‘need’ is dangerous because it strikes at the heart of the practical argument for freedom. That argument depends on recognizing that each person is best qualified to choose for himself which among a multitude of possible lives is best for him. If many of those choices involve ‘needs’, things of infinite value to one person which can be best determined by someone else, what is the use of freedom? If I disagree with the expert about my ‘needs’, I make, not a value judgement, but a mistake.

An alleged need, something that must be provided to the needer whether they want it or not, can be employed as a justification for state intervention, and for the expansion of state power. The existence of a bunch of mere human wants doesn’t open that same door to power.

But wants sounds unimportant

There might be a concern that when we’re talking about desires for goods that would prevent imminent death, wants sounds too trivial. I think that in philosophically rigorous contexts that’s just a bullet we need to bite. If necessary we can qualify wants as primary wants, intensely felt wants, longings or yearnings. The important thing is to stop implying the existence of a separate category of unconditional needs.

If we agree that human needs are more properly considered wants, can there be any justification for maintaining that a starving person’s desperate desire for food is somehow qualitatively different from a wealthy person’s casual desire to visit the new bar in town? I don’t think so. To insist that it is doesn’t tap any additional explanatory power and violates the principle of parsimony. All matters of human desire – including the desire to extend life – can be accurately expressed in terms of subjective wants of differing strengths.

Keeping this homology in mind we can appreciate the potential chasm between the intensity of any two wants in the world. Perhaps seeing things in this light can refresh our sensitivity to the suffering of the critically poor.

I believe the concept of human needs is dehumanising. It unjustifiably projects the goal to extend life on all persons, and falsely assumes that infinite value is attached to this goal. Positing categorical needs that exist divorced from individual values and goals brushes aside human difference, subjectivity, intentionality and reason–all of which exist even under the most desperate circumstances.

Against the presumption of open borders. The libertarian argument from imperfect restitution.

Against open borders

Is an open border policy inherently more libertarian than a restrictive or exclusionary policy? I believe the answer is no, there are important libertarian considerations that count against open borders.

I believe the correct position for libertarians is one I’m calling libertarian border agnosticism. The view that a priori knowledge about what the best border policy for a state would be, with respect to libertarian ideals, is not obtainable. I’ll do my best to explain how I’ve gotten to this conclusion, and then mention a few relevant considerations and objections.

By open border policy, I mean a policy by which a state is permissive about who it allows to enter the territory it controls.

In my view, private property anarchism is the most thoroughgoing expression of libertarianism, so I’ll be talking about why an adherent of this view may coherently prefer a restrictive border policy over a permissive one, under statism. The rest of this article is written from the perspective of private property anarchism and assumes the reader shares this view.

A simple case

When the state bars a foreigner from entering the territory whose borders it police, and is prepared to use violence to enforce that exclusion, is the state initiating aggression against (violating the property rights of) that person? Not necessarily.

The developed public property within the state’s borders is more properly considered the property of the people the state owes restitution to. The people with the best ownership claim to this land and infrastructure are those who have been victims of the state in the past. This group includes taxpayers, foreign civilians killed in bombings (and their heirs), and those the state has punished for victimless crimes.

An inherent quality of being a legal immigrant (as opposed to a person who has just travelled somewhere, or a person with some other legal status) is the legal right to the routine use of developed public property in the host country. Under current conditions, immigrants to a country necessarily use the host country’s developed public property — e.g. roads, airports and public buildings.

Bearing all of the above in mind, imagine a state with only local victims. Imagine too that the victim population is unanimous in preferring that members of foreign population B not use their property —  the developed public property of that territory. In preventing members of population B from crossing the border, the state would plausibly be acting with the permission of those property owners to exclude members of population B from using the local developed public property. In this aspect at least it would be acting as a steward, albeit one prone to predation and abuse.

In this hypothetical even those subjects who would prefer that the state did not exist, would prefer the state to deploy its ill-gotten gains to restrict access rather than allow unrestricted access. In my view, libertarians should advocate a restrictive border policy here.

Does a more realistic polity justify open borders?

A more lifelike scenario is that some members of the victim population are in favour of people from population B using their property, while others don’t want that to happen.

The wishes of the two groups cannot both be satisfied by the state as we know it. By denying entry to population B, the state is committing a rights violation against the part of its victim population who would like to invite members of B onto their property. And by allowing entry to population B (while simultaneously preventing anyone else from physically excluding that population) the state is committing a rights violation against the members of the victim population who would prefer to exclude population B.

In this case the least harmful policy for the local state to impose, with respect to the sanctity of property, might be a restrictive one or a permissive one, depending on the summed preferences of the victim population – and on the respective weights of their claims to restitution.

The libertarian argument from imperfect restitution

For the next part of the discussion here are the premises I’m assuming:

  • The local state commits criminal acts of aggression against many people.
  • Both restrictive and open border policy, when imposed by a state, involves rights violations of different groups.
  • The local state owes restitution to its existing victims (including net tax payers).
  • The local state, qua state, does not necessarily owe any restitution to would-be immigrants.
  • While it exists, the local state, through its policies, is capable of providing partial restitution to its victims.
  • Insofar as the state deploys expropriated resources in accordance with the preferences of its victims, it provides partial restitution to them.
  • It is preferable to maximise the degree of fulfilled restitution while minimising the number and severity degree of new rights violations.

Accepting the above premises, principled libertarians may judge it preferable that a given state adopt a restrictive border policy with respect to a given population.

The libertarian should be estimating which policy would cohere best with the summed preferences of the victim population with regard to how their property is used, while minimising new rights violations.

The point is that given a government theft, taking, or trespass, it is better, other things being equal, for the victims to receive restitution; and more restitution is better than a smaller, insufficient amount. But restitution need not be made only in dollars. It can be made by providing other value or benefits to the victims. One such benefit to me is the ability to use a nice, uncrowded, local pool for a cheap price.

Stephan Kinsella

It’s possible that the policy that best balances providing restitutive justice while minimising new acts of aggression, would be a policy that excluded members of population B from crossing the local state’s borders.

I believe that by this point we’ve established that libertarianism doesn’t require an advocacy of open borders in all cases.

Other considerations

In this article I’m using the phrase open borders as if it were synonymous with open access to developed public property. I feel justified in doing this because in almost all the conversations I’ve experienced on the subject, this is what people seem to have in mind.

This argument is relevant only to the phrase open borders insofar as this phrase refers to open access to developed public property. For instance if new settlers arrive without setting foot on developed public property, and homesteaded some remote piece of land within the state’s borders that no one else had homesteaded previously, then this argument offers no reason to oppose them.

Open borders advocates like Bryan Caplan point out that the state is violating human rights when they prevent an immigrant from entering a country to stay on private property with the consent of the properties owner. This view is compatible with the argument presented above.

A restrictive border policy may require a more powerful government to enforce it than would a more permissive policy. At least from a libertarian perspective, that additional power is likely to lead to future abuse and injustices that would otherwise not have obtained. On the other hand, allowing entry to populations who prefer a more powerful state introduces a trend in the opposite direction if the newcomers, or their descendants with similar views, are eligible to vote.

The imposition of border controls by the state will carry costs that are ultimately borne by the taxed population. Some proportion of this population will prefer for those controls not to be in place. So this additional taxation constitutes an additional degree of rights violations that counts against the option of restrictive border controls.

The sentiments of local victims can be roughly gauged by existing political processes and polls, but trying to take account of the preferences of foreign victims in particular seems, at best, like a very difficult challenge. Estimates of which policy is most in accordance with the wishes of victims are certain to include a large measure of doubt.

All the above difficulties and considerations notwithstanding, we cannot know, a priori, that the best border policy in any locality is open borders, from a libertarian perspective.

Biting the eugenics bullet

In objecting to this line of thinking writers have pointed out that being born is similar to immigrating to a country in many respects. In both cases a newcomer shows up, potentially without the blessing of the majority of the victim population, and starts using developed public property.

If the argument set out above is sound it seems that there is nothing inherent to private property anarchism that says a state-imposed eugenics policy (e.g. People matching a given profile are forbidden from having children) is necessarily less just than the ubiquitous ‘open-procreation’ policy we’re all used to today. As with border policy, the relative desirability of such a policy — at least by the lights of those who take private property rights and restitution seriously — can’t be known a priori and should be weighed by attempting to assess the summed preferences of the victim population.


The website has a page talking about ‘Collective Property Rights’ arguments against open borders, like this one, and summarises some responses. In my view none of the responses refutes this argument.


This post owes a good deal to Stephan Kinsella’s 2005 article A Simple Libertarian Argument Against Unrestricted Immigration and Open Borders.

Further reading

Chase Rachels: The Libertarian Case AGAINST Open Borders.

Updated 2017-06-17 to swap references to the ‘taxed population’ to the broader, and more relevant ‘victim population’. Added the qualifying prefix ‘developed’ to all mentions of public property.

Updated 2017-06-24 to introduce the phrase libertarian border agnosticism.

For the arts – Against compulsion. Dear Patreon.

For the arts?

Dear, I’m a happy user of your service. Recently you sent an email urging me to join a campaign supporting arts funding. I won’t support For The Arts. I’ll explain why.

Arts funding is derived from taxation. Taxation depends on the state maintaining credible threats of violence against peaceful people who would otherwise not comply. If no such threats existed most would choose to safely withhold their funds. So taxation is extortion.

I appreciate that Patreon allows me to connect with people who value my work enough to voluntarily support it. On the other hand, more ‘support for The Arts’ means more funds extorted from the unwilling. The idea of anyone being coerced to support the creation of art works is repugnant to me. It’s a poor fit with the mindset I associate with your service.

Thanks for listening, and for your service that allows consenting supporters of my work to help me create things.

How to make peace with moral nihilism

Moral nihilism

Moral nihilism means rejecting the notion that anything can be inherently moral (right) or immoral (wrong). I believe moral nihilism is justified because I’m not aware of any reason to suppose actions can have an intrinsic must not-be-done-ness or must-be-done-ness. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong and The Myth of Morality were the two most important works in persuading me about this.

Some people worry that if they become persuaded of moral nihilism it will undercut their ability to make moral arguments. Perhaps they even fear turning into people they don’t want to be. I hope to show that these fears are misplaced.

Moral nihilism: More plausible – Less comfortable?

I was happy to come across David D. Friedman’s review of Michael Huemer’s book, Ethical Intuitionism. Friedman and Huemer are authors of the two best books I’ve read on the topic of libertarianism. Here’s the part of the review most relevant to me.

[Huemer] does not provide an adequate response to the one challenge I am concerned with, the view that combines ethical nihilism with evolutionary psychology.

The claim of that view is that there are no normative facts, that nothing is good or bad and there is no moral reason to do or not do anything. It explains our moral beliefs […] by evolution — they were beliefs that increased the reproductive success of those who held them in the environment in which we evolved, and so got hard wired into their descendants.

That approach challenges intuitionism in two ways. First, it explains the evidence, my ethical intuitions, on the basis of facts of reality I already believe to be true. Once we have one explanation there is no need for another. Second, it raises the question of how, if there are moral facts, we could have acquired the ability to know them, since at least some of them would presumably have led us to modify our behavior in ways that reduced our reproductive success — make us less willing, for instance, to slaughter the men of a neighboring tribe and take their women.

Friedman closes the review by explaining that, despite its parsimony and explanatory power, he cannot accept moral nihilism.

Despite these problems, I have not yet abandoned my current moral position, in part because the alternative position fails to answer the questions I want answered, indeed implies that they are unanswerable, that there are no actual oughts. In part also, I fail to adopt the nihilist position because I am unable to believe it. That inability is psychological, not logical. I cannot actually believe that there is nothing wrong with torturing small children for the fun of it or murdering large numbers of innocent people, both conclusions that follow from the view that nothing at all is wrong or right.

I think I understand Friedman’s concerns. Here I’ll try to put them in their proper place.

Is there nothing wrong with torturing children for fun?

Speaking as a moral nihilist — I say that torturing children for fun is wrong. Not wrong in a cosmic, mind-independent way. To me wrong is shorthand for “it’s an idea that is offensive to my moral intuitions”. The name for this attitude to moral statements is Expressivism. I believe I experience the wrongness of the idea of child torture as intensely as they do. I used to be a moral realist so I have some basis for comparison.

Ditching moral realism doesn’t turn you into a bad person

If you’ve done away with moral realism doesn’t that mean you feel free to do things that are abhorrent?

Thankfully the answer is no. Even though moral facts don’t exist, in a healthy human, strong moral feelings and empathetic response do. If I could be sure I would ‘get away with it’ I still wouldn’t do the Bad Things that a psychopath would calmly contemplate. I would feel repulsed by the idea of doing them, and I am sure I would feel overwhelming guilt if I did carry them out. These strong disincentives have nothing to do with ideas of permission or forbiddance.

Moral realism doesn’t give an advantage in persuasion

Doesn’t denying moral facts undercut your ability or motivation to make moral arguments? I don’t believe it has to. While being a moral nihilist and a libertarian, I made the video George Ought to Help, which implicitly makes a moral argument against the state, specifically against the welfare state.

I’m motivated to make moral arguments because I believe they can bring about changes in the world that harmonise with my preferences. My preferences (which reflect my moral feelings) include increasing prosperity and reducing suffering. I’m convinced that propertarian anarchism is by far the most suitable path yet conceived of towards that end.

My moral arguments don’t rely on the assumption that moral facts exist. Instead, they appeal to a preference for coherence and consistency in moral judgments on the part of the people I’m making the argument to.

For instance, you and I feel that X is wrong (meaning that it offends our moral feelings). Y closely resembles X in ways A B and C. If you condemn X doesn’t it make sense to condemn Y too?

I encourage people to examine whether their judgments cohere with one another. In my view it’s fair to say that the moral judgments of most supporters of the state are incoherent, for instance.

Cut your losses

I believe that in efforts of persuasion, moral realism doesn’t help you. If a person doesn’t already feel that threatening violence against peaceful people is wrong (e.g. threatening to assault a friend to compel them to donate to a cause you consider worthy), then no amount of outraged brow beating about moral facts is going to change their mind. You should consider cutting your losses and ending the conversation.

A stronger foundation

If two moral realists disagree with one another, they get to a stalemate because (I claim) they rely on assumptions that are implausible for the same reasons. A moral nihilist can query these directly without threatening their own position. She might ask: How have you gained knowledge about moral facts? By what mechanism? Why treat this conviction as something other than merely a very strong feeling?

I encourage you not to be afraid of moral nihilism. It doesn’t make you a wicked person. It coheres better than moral realism with what we know about the world, and you sacrifice no persuasive power by accepting it.