Reply To: The Logic of Edward Feser


You’re welcome, glad it was helpful. ^_^

Btw, I should add one more thing: I’m not saying I think Feser is totally off base, nor that Nozick’s work is flawless (not that it’s not without value – but Feser agrees that Nozick makes some good arguments).

Indeed, I think Feser’s starting point – Aristotelian/Thomistic Natural Law* – is sounder than Nozick’s Social Contract/Kantian starting point. I found Feser’s books and articles to be quite good.

But here’s a “hook” that shows just how getting one small detail wrong can cause you to go wrong. Feser grounds his theory of property in the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition, where property is justified because it contributes to human flourishing** – it serves the purpose of promoting human life. But from that he concludes that if someone really needs to infringe upon property to survive, they can do so, because it is life that takes the priority. Now, Feser means that they seriously need it to survive (they need to be in extremis – for example, if they are starving in the woods and come upon someone’s summer cabin, currently unoccupied, they would be morally justified to trespass and eat some food, or turn the water faucet on and drink some water, if the alternative is death), not just want it. But this does open doors.

However, another philosopher I discovered by way of Feser – David Odenberg (Feser made a couple posts recommending his books, and he cites Oderberg’s works favorably) operates from the same tradition, and has the same foundation for property. However, Oderberg acknowledges that, while a person would be morally justified in doing that, it still constitutes an infringement upon another, and they are obligated to provide restitution as soon as they are able. If they are able to, but do not provide, restitution, then this justifiable infringement crosses the line into theft. Thus Oderberg allows for reasonable accommodations to exceptional, extreme situations, but maintains the principle of life, but it closes the door to expropriation, redistribution, and other ongoing violations – such as through government policy.

So this small divergence, from the same underlaying premises, can generate big difference when it comes to what sort of policies are justifiable. In my opinion, Oderberg is much closer to correct on this. And, while a pure Rothbardian would probably grumble a tad about Oderberg (such infringements would not be morally justified), ultimately their positions are much closer, because as long as restitution is made, the outcome, from a Rothbardian perspective, is essentially compatible. But I haven’t seen Feser say that restitution is owed if someone needs to take another’s property in order to survive.

*(N.B. I’m not a Catholic, myself – but Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical tradition isn’t just for Catholics; he makes compelling arguments whether one is a Catholic or not).

**(The argument is more extensive than this, so please don’t scoff at it on the basis of this short statement).