A philosophy webcomic about the inevitable anguish of living a brief life in an absurd world. Also Jokes

1832

A Dialogue on Freedom


Like all the dialogue comics, the two characters don't represent any philosophers in particular, but merely discuss an idea.

Robert Nozick's concept of a "Utility Monster" was a thought experiment aiming to criticize Utilitarianism. He imagines a "monster" with a capacity for happiness so much greater than our own, that we would be morally obligated to sacrifice everything to give the monster pleasure, as that would result in the most overall happiness. Most people recoil from this conclusion, due to its apparent unfairness. Nozick uses this idea to argue against the redistribution of wealth, because it would be unjust. He favors a society based on free exchange only, where wealth is justified based on not how fairly it was distributed, but on how fairly it was acquired. So if someone becomes very wealthy through voluntary exchanges with other human beings, "redistributing" that wealth is effectively denying the ability for people to come to voluntary exchanges - denying their freedom. Even things like minimum wage laws he saw as restrictions on freedom, because after all if two people consent to the exchange, who is the government to say that they can't? Freedom, unlike total happiness, Nozick thought, could not be subject to a "Utility Monster" because your freedom does not take away from my freedom. The ability for people to make contracts isn't a finite resource that can be "sucked up".

However, Nozick's conception of freedom is based largely on contracts revolving around property rights. That is to say, freedom for Nozick is freedom to own and control not just your own personhood, but any property that you own. Property, like resources devoted to increasing "utility", is a finite resource that could theoretically be entirely owned by a single "Freedom Monster", or maybe "Justice Monster", but perhaps best named "Property Monster". Like the comic imagines, a monster that lived forever and bent its entire will to owning more and more land could, theoretically, through entirely voluntary transactions, own all of the land. If this situation arose, the monster would have infinite leverage in any negotiation that it entered into, because everyone on earth would starve unless they made a deal with the monster. From Nozick's point of view, because neither party was physically coerced, and the monster's property came from a history of free transactions, the monster's ownership of all its property is just and free. However, the situation that it leads to seems to be one that severely lacks freedom. The monster could make any rules it wanted, and everyone on earth would be more or less "freely" forced to obliged it. Most people would not describe this situation as one where humanity is more free.

Of course, if we find this situation abhorrent, we have to question why we do not find it abhorrent on a smaller scale. For example, millions of people are born without property today, and find themselves having to obey the rules set by their landlord or boss, and this obedience to property is described as "freedom", but structurally it is the same freedom enjoyed by people obeying the monster's arbitrary rules in order to live. The business owner or landlord can control others by having far greater leverage, not infinite leverage as the monster does, because they have to compete with other business owners or landlords, but far more leverage than the person with nothing. Worse, if we look at the situations in terms of class rather than individuals, the property owners as a class do have the infinite leverage of the monster, because they quite literally own everything. So far as they have common interests, they will naturally exploit that leverage to advance those interests with great ease, since the class with no property relies on the use of their property to survive. As to what a real freedom might look like, where one or more individuals couldn't use their massive leverage to exploit others in any manner they saw fit, well, that is as they say a question beyond the scope of this essay.

Like all the dialogue comics, the two characters don't represent any philosophers in particular, but merely discuss an idea.

Robert Nozick's concept of a "Utility Monster" was a thought experiment aiming to criticize Utilitarianism. He imagines a "monster" with a capacity for happiness so much greater than our own, that we would be morally obligated to sacrifice everything to give the monster pleasure, as that would result in the most overall happiness. Most people recoil from this conclusion, due to its apparent unfairness. Nozick uses this idea to argue against the redistribution of wealth, because it would be unjust. He favors a society based on free exchange only, where wealth is justified based on not how fairly it was distributed, but on how fairly it was acquired. So if someone becomes very wealthy through voluntary exchanges with other human beings, "redistributing" that wealth is effectively denying the ability for people to come to voluntary exchanges - denying their freedom. Even things like minimum wage laws he saw as restrictions on freedom, because after all if two people consent to the exchange, who is the government to say that they can't? Freedom, unlike total happiness, Nozick thought, could not be subject to a "Utility Monster" because your freedom does not take away from my freedom. The ability for people to make contracts isn't a finite resource that can be "sucked up".

However, Nozick's conception of freedom is based largely on contracts revolving around property rights. That is to say, freedom for Nozick is freedom to own and control not just your own personhood, but any property that you own. Property, like resources devoted to increasing "utility", is a finite resource that could theoretically be entirely owned by a single "Freedom Monster", or maybe "Justice Monster", but perhaps best named "Property Monster". Like the comic imagines, a monster that lived forever and bent its entire will to owning more and more land could, theoretically, through entirely voluntary transactions, own all of the land. If this situation arose, the monster would have infinite leverage in any negotiation that it entered into, because everyone on earth would starve unless they made a deal with the monster. From Nozick's point of view, because neither party was physically coerced, and the monster's property came from a history of free transactions, the monster's ownership of all its property is just and free. However, the situation that it leads to seems to be one that severely lacks freedom. The monster could make any rules it wanted, and everyone on earth would be more or less "freely" forced to obliged it. Most people would not describe this situation as one where humanity is more free.

Of course, if we find this situation abhorrent, we have to question why we do not find it abhorrent on a smaller scale. For example, millions of people are born without property today, and find themselves having to obey the rules set by their landlord or boss, and this obedience to property is described as "freedom", but structurally it is the same freedom enjoyed by people obeying the monster's arbitrary rules in order to live. The business owner or landlord can control others by having far greater leverage, not infinite leverage as the monster does, because they have to compete with other business owners or landlords, but far more leverage than the person with nothing. Worse, if we look at the situations in terms of class rather than individuals, the property owners as a class do have the infinite leverage of the monster, because they quite literally own everything. So far as they have common interests, they will naturally exploit that leverage to advance those interests with great ease, since the class with no property relies on the use of their property to survive. As to what a real freedom might look like, where one or more individuals couldn't use their massive leverage to exploit others in any manner they saw fit, well, that is as they say a question beyond the scope of this essay.

Support the comic on Patreon!
Follow on RSS Follow on twitter Follow on facebook share with reddit share on twitter share with your friends on facebook share with google employees