Bryan Caplan Foreshadows The Problem Of Political Authority in 1996

It can be fascinating to see how certain ideas evolve over time. I  found a usenet post from 1996 containing the following essay by Bryan Caplan, partly based on his conversations with Michael Huemer.  It foreshadows Huemer’s two most recent books.

The main thrust of the piece is an early version of the metaethical theory that Huemer fully develops in Ethical Intuitionism.

The conclusion almost reads like a brief synopsis of The Problem of Political Authority:

Now as I said at the outset, thistheory is consistent with any
substantive moral views. Nevertheless, it is peculiarly consonant
with libertarian moral theory. Why? Well, it is a common observation
among libertarians that everyone follows libertarian principles in
his or her private life; it is only where government is concerned
that they grant a moral sanction to the initiation of force. And if
you asked your average person why it was wrong to commit murders, or
rob, or defraud others, one popular answer would be: “That’s just
common sense.” Indeed it is; the principle of non-initiation of
force is just common sense; which is to say, that even the simplest
mind, if it honestly and critically turns itself to the proposition
that it is wrong to use violence against peaceful persons, or rob
them of what they have produced, can immediately grasp its truth.
All that would then be required to establish libertarian moral
theory would be to couple this everyday insight of direct reason
with the premise, derived from observation, that governments
habitually violate the non-initiation of force principle, and then
use deductive reason to draw the final inference that most, if not
all, of what government does is wrong and must be stopped at once.

I note that Huemer did not ultimately ground his arguments against authority in ethical intuitionism. He found it enough to observe that people overwhelmingly already share moral beliefs sufficient to make the case against state authority, and there is no need to persuade people of what they already recognize to be true.

THE IS-OUGHT PROBLEM:
WHAT GOVERNMENT DOES IS WRONG

By Bryan Caplan

Philosophical Notes No.41

ISSN 0267-7091
ISBN 1 85637 350 9

An occasional publication of the Libertarian Alliance,
25 Chapter Chambers, Esterbrooke Street, London SW1P 4NN, England.

Email: L…@capital.demon.co.uk
http://www.digiweb.com/igeldard/LA/

(c) 1996: Libertarian Alliance; Bryan Caplan.

Bryan Caplan is completing his PhD in economics at Princeton
University. He did his undergraduate work at UC Berkeley, where he
earned a major in economics and a minor in philosophy. He is a
four-time winner of the Institute of Humane Studies’ Claude R. Lambe
Fellowship, and recently received a Bradley Fellowship.

The views expressed in this publication are those of its
author, and not necessarily those of the Libertarian Alliance, its
Committee, Advisory Council or subscribers.

LA Director: Chris R. Tame
Editorial Director: Brian Micklethwait
Webmaster/Netmaster: Ian Geldard

FOR LIFE, LIBERTY AND PROPERTY
____________________________________________________________________

What is the Is-Ought problem? It is usually stated as the problem of
whether it is possible to derive normative statements from
descriptive statements; but to state the problem at its most general
level, it is the problem of whether any moral statement can be
literally true, and hence potentially knowable. It is the problem of
whether there exist any moral facts in exactly the same sense as
there exist chemical facts, historical facts, or mathematical facts.

Since libertarianism is a normative political theory, it is only
natural to expect that great libertarian thinkers would grapple with
the Is-Ought problem; after all, if there are no moral facts to be
known, then any normative theory would be senseless. It would be
akin to a theory about unicorns. Of course even if the Is-Ought
problem were solved, it would hardly establish any particular moral
doctrine; solving the Is-Ought problem is a necessary condition for
libertarian moral theory to be established, not a sufficient
condition.

Interestingly, libertarian political philosophers have spent even
more time on the Is-Ought problem than you would expect. Rand, among
others, popularized the problem. She certainly stirred my initial
interest in the question, but I found her answer to be quite
unsatisfactory. After several years of thinking about the problem, I
now think that I have a very promising solution which I will
presently expound.

NON DEDUCTIVE MEANS OF KNOWING

Now it is very widely believed that there are only two sources of
knowledge: observation and deductive reasoning. This is perhaps one
of the few premises shared by philosophers as diverse as Rand and
Hume, though naturally they put different spins on it. Now it is not
too hard to show that if these are the only two sources of
knowledge, then moral knowledge is impossible. (Of course, just
because we are totally ignorant about something, we could not infer
that the thing did not exist; but, as with astrology, if a field is
shown to have no valid methods, then the validity of the field
itself falls into question.)

So why can’t observation yield moral knowledge? Simply put, no
matter how long you look at something, listen to it, smell it, taste
it, or touch it, no moral conclusions arise. That seems fairly
obvious, but it has wide-reaching ramifications. For suppose that we
try to justify a moral conclusion with deductive reasoning. The
problem here is that deductive reasoning merely shows that if the
premises are true, then the conclusions are true, without
establishing whether or not the premises are true. Therefore, for a
deductive argument to yield a true conclusion, we must know that the
premises are true, and must therefore have some non-deductive means
of knowing this if we are to avoid an infinite regress. Normally
this is no problem, since we can use observation to establish the
truth of the premises. But as we noted at the outset, moral
conclusions can’t be reached by observation.

But couldn’t premises verified through observation coupled with
deductive reasoning yield a moral conclusion? I answer that they
could not. As a general rule, a deductive argument can only reach a
conclusion within the basic subject matter of the premises. You
can’t start with a premise about geometry and wind up with a
conclusion about history; nor can you take an historical premise and
yield a geometrical conclusion. Deductive reasoning may yield new
and interesting results, but not about a totally distinct field of
study than that of your initial premises.

THERE IS ALSO DIRECT REASON

So we seem to be in a quandary; neither observation nor deductive
reasoning can yield moral knowledge. Fortunately, the quandary is
self-created by the initial premise. If we take the premise
seriously, we will notice that many non-moral items of knowledge
also fall into question. Take, for three examples, the following
propositions:

1. Every effect has a cause; the same cause always produces the same
effect.

2. The argument ad hominem is a fallacy.

3. 2 + 2 = 4

Notice: all three are non-moral; and none of them could be known
merely through observation or deductive reasoning. We surely do not
observe every effect and every cause, then conclude that they always
come in pairs. But neither do we deduce the law of cause-and-effect
from another, more basic premise. So too with the logical principle
that the argument ad hominem is a fallacy; it is not that we learn
it by carefully staring at it; but neither is it the product of a
deductive argument. Or to take the final case, we don’t learn that
two and two must always make four by observing groupings of twos
(though doing so might surely help us grasp the principle), nor by
deducing it from anything else.

But if we don’t learn any of these propositions by observation or
deductive reasoning, how do we learn them? I answer that the
previous account of knowledge makes a critical sin of omission: it
assumes that deductive, indirect use of reason is the entire
faculty. I say that there is also direct reason, which we may also
call intellect or intuition. We use our direct reason when we simply
turn our intellects to a proposition and think about it as honestly
and critically as we can; and coupled with sufficient intelligence,
sometimes we can immediately see that the proposition under
consideration is true or false. Thus, to validate the law of cause
and effect, I turn my intellect to the proposition and think about
it to the best of my ability; and eventually its truth becomes
evident. So too with the fallacy ad hominem: I think about the
fallacy, turning my intellect directly upon the issue, and see that
it is false. The same goes for 2 + 2 = 4. To sum up, the problem
with the theory that all knowledge comes from either observation or
deductive reasoning is that it ignores the more basic faculty of
direct reason; and the best argument for this faculty of direct
reason, besides the introspective one, is that unless we allow for a
faculty of direct reason, almost everything that we call knowledge
turns out to be unjustified. I’d call that a reductio ad absurdum if
I ever saw one.

APPLYING DIRECT REASON

Now how does this help solve the problem of moral knowledge? I claim
that some moral propositions are learned by means of direct reason.
That is, we simply think about the propositions, turning our
intellects to them as honestly and critically as we can, and then
sometimes we immediately grasp their truth. For example: Consider
the proposition “Murder is wrong.” Turn your intellect to it as
honestly and critically as you are able. I claim that when I carry
out this thought experiment, the wrongness of murder becomes evident
to me. So too with other simple moral propositions. When I wonder
whether racism is wrong, or whether Hitler was a bad man, when I
apply my direct reason to the problem, the answer is all too clear.
Now of course, it needn’t be the case that all moral knowledge is
direct. In fact, I could only learn that Hitler was a bad man by the
cooperative use of all of my faculties:

1. Murder is wrong. (Premise supplied by direct reason.)

2. Hitler was responsible for many murders. (Premise supplied by
observation of incriminating evidence, testimony, etc.)

3. Someone who deliberately commits many wrong acts is a bad person.
(Direct reason.)

4. Therefore, Hitler was a bad man. (Deductive reason)

The point is that for the argument to even get off the ground,
direct reason was necessary. It might be that direct reason supplies
only a tiny number of valid moral principles, from which valid
conclusions must be deduced. My opinion is that the use of direct
reason is more frequent, but that is not the critical part of the
theory. The critical part is the admission that we sometimes use the
faculty of direct reason to come to know a moral proposition as
literally true.

THE FINAL INFERENCE

Now as I said at the outset, this theory is consistent with any
substantive moral views. Nevertheless, it is peculiarly consonant
with libertarian moral theory. Why? Well, it is a common observation
among libertarians that everyone follows libertarian principles in
his or her private life; it is only where government is concerned
that they grant a moral sanction to the initiation of force. And if
you asked your average person why it was wrong to commit murders, or
rob, or defraud others, one popular answer would be: “That’s just
common sense.” Indeed it is; the principle of non-initiation of
force is just common sense; which is to say, that even the simplest
mind, if it honestly and critically turns itself to the proposition
that it is wrong to use violence against peaceful persons, or rob
them of what they have produced, can immediately grasp its truth.
All that would then be required to establish libertarian moral
theory would be to couple this everyday insight of direct reason
with the premise, derived from observation, that governments
habitually violate the non-initiation of force principle, and then
use deductive reason to draw the final inference that most, if not
all, of what government does is wrong and must be stopped at once.
____________________________________________________________________

I would like to thank Michael Huemer of the Rutgers philosophy
department for providing me with many of my key ideas on this issue.
____________________________________________________________________

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