Sunday, June 01, 2008

A First Crack at Crispin Sartwell

Crispin Sartwell, a professor of political science at Dickinson College and philosophical anarchist, has offered the following challenge:

A Philosophical Challenge

My irritating yet astounding new book Against the State (SUNY Press) argues that all the arguments of the great philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Hegel, Rawls, Nozick, and Habermas, among others), are, putting it kindly, unsound.

The state rests on violence: not the consent of the governed, not utility, not rational decision-making, not justice.

Not only are the existing arguments for the legitimacy of state power unsound; they are shockingly fallacious, a scandal, an embarrassment to the Western intellectual tradition.

So I issue a challenge: Give a decent argument for the moral legitimacy of state power, or reconstruct one of the traditional arguments in the face of the refutations in Against the State.

If you can't, you are rationally obliged to accept anarchism.

I'd offer a huge cash prize, but I'm broke.

Henceforward, if you continue to support or observe the authority of government, you are an evil, irrational cultist.

You're an anarchist now, baby, until further notice.

e-mail responses to

There's also a irresistible video version:

Well, I can't help myself. Crispin Sartwell, I'll take up your gauntlet. This is version one, to be revised if you or someone else should happen to tear it down.

I confess, I've not read the book yet, because I'm swamped with work plus too broke to buy it. (Dear Professor Sartwell: if you think this argument is at least "decent," feel free to reward this poor grad student with a signed copy.) Nonetheless, while the following argument may not be correct, I'm fairly confident that it's at least better than "shockingly fallacious, a scandal, an embarrassment to the Western intellectual tradition."

Here's the basic form. First, a definition. Say that a "possible future state of affairs" is a state of affairs that is reachable from the current (actual) state of affairs, by some series of events which does not require us to do any morally impermissible acts (where the moral standard is given by whatever normative principles are under consideration) and does not violate any laws of nature or empirical regularities in human psychology, sociology, etc. with seemingly law-like strength. If a state of affairs is reachable even by a difficult and slow series of events, we can say it is possible.

1) A state of affairs is justified under some (acceptable) normative standard X if it is a possible future state of affairs and if it is better, under the terms of normative standard X, than any other possible future state of affairs. That is, a state of affairs is justified if it is the best possible future state of affairs, where "best" is defined with reference to the normative standard being applied.

2) In all possible future states of affairs, given humanity as it is ("men as they are"), most people spend all of their time, and all people spend most of their time, governed by some sort of state.

3) For all normative standards, the best possible future state of affairs is one in which most people spend all of their time, and all people spend most of their time, governed by some sort of state. (from 2)

4) Under each normative standard, there is some state of affairs which is justified and in which most people spend all of their time, and all people spend most of their time, governed by some sort of state. (from 2, 1)

Therefore, states may be justified under any (acceptable) normative standard (utilitarianism, Kantianism, etc.) that you care to name. Q.E.D.

Premise 1) might be controversial, but it ought not to be. It's just a restatement of the familiar "ought implies can" principle. If we were to reject it, e.g., by saying that we hold to a normative standard that cannot be satisfied by any possible state of affairs, we'd be forced to renounce hope for having any justifiable world -- and that seems like something we ought not to do. So I say that premise 1) is a reasonable condition on any normative standard: it must not demand that we bring about the impossible. Nor should it demand that we do profoundly immoral acts (i.e., kill off half of the human population) in order to bring about moral results. Moreover, don't be deceived by the fact that I speak of states of affairs -- this isn't a premise that is only limited to teological normative standards. A deontologist could say that the best possible state of affairs by that normative standard is one where nobody has violated side constraints, etc. Also note that premise 1) offers a sufficiency condition, not a necessity condition. States of affairs other than the best possible future might be justified.

Premise 2) is more troublesome. However, consider the general facts pointed out in Dahl's answer to the anarchist (in chapter 2 of Democracy and its Critics, which inspired this argument). They are roughly as follows (with some additions of my own):

- At present, we live in a densely populated world of states.

- It is extremely implausible, as a sociological and political matter, to think that all or even most of the societies in the world could become anarchic at the same time. So any anarchies will have to exist in a world where there are also many states.

- States are necessarily more militarily powerful than anarchist communities, because states have the capacity to coordinate large numbers of people, as well as the resources to get things like tanks and guns, and generally because a military is a public good and it's really hard to get public goods without a state.

- The world will always have many, many people who desire power, wealth, and domination over others. It will also have many people who sincerely think that they should should be able to tell others how to live. Those sorts of people are drawn to positions of power in states, and often get them. This is an immutable fact of human nature.

- The last fact gives us good reason to think that existing states will forcibly take control of anarchist communities of any significant size, as well as to think that people within anarchist communities will frequently attempt to take control of such communities from within, and sometimes succeed.

- The world will also have lots of people who simply desire the things that states supply (e.g., public goods), and who will join up with states even if anarchist arguments are correct. There will never be consensus on the truth of anarchist arguments.

All of those facts seem to give us very good reason to believe premise 2) is true.

So the argument seems to go through, at least on a casual pass. We don't all have to be anarchists just yet.

note: there's a great discussion going on in the comments ... at least, there was a few minutes ago, until haloscan decided to croak and not let me post a reply, and now doesn't want to admit to existing at all... it will continue when haloscan comes back to life.

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