The Logic of Edward Feser

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    Question, I really like Nozick’s tale of the slave, but I ran across this blog post by Mr. Feser, and now I am wondering if I should stop using Nozick’s tale. Is Feser right? Is logic on his side? Here’s the article:



    The tale of the slave is an analogy and it works depending upon whether the underlying premises are sound, and it doesn’t work if the underlying premises are unsound.

    I invoke it, too, because it highlights the problem of presuming democracy makes any result acceptable – and it’s a synopsis of the evolution of democracy. It’s a reasonable comeback, IMO, to people who suggest “well, when you voted, you agreed to be bound by the results, whatever they were, and we voted to expropriate you and use you for corvee labour, so you have no legitimate grounds on which to complain.” (Note that a lot of anarcho-libertarians – not all of them, but a lot – *do* accept this, and is a reason why they consider voting objectionable, and elections morally objectionable, and they will argue – I saw some of the arguments this cycle – that if you participate in the electoral process, you are signing the contract and have no grounds on which to complain about what is done to you afterwords, whatever that might be. So, they further argue, the only way to maintain your moral independence is not to vote. I emphasize though that this is only *one* argument for non-participation, among several that they have).

    So we get back to Feser’s objection: His objection-analogy is based on contract itself. Which fits within Nozick (and Locke’s) “Social Contract”-based theory. But Feser himself is (no longer) really a social contractarian, either (and as he further elaborates, that becomes somewhat clear. But it’d probably be helpful to understand where he’s coming from by reading his books – which are actually very good, though he, IMO, left out a key half of a principle, which I’ll get to at some point). On that subject, we might invoke our gracious host’s video:

    And, taking off from that point, we can point out that while Feser says Nozick’s “Tale of the Slave” is “underdescribed,” so too is Feser’s counter-argument: Lets say for the sake of argument that I accept I have moral duties, including positive moral duties, that I did not explicitly choose. Just what are they? And if they are enforcable, by whom and how did they get the authority to enforce them? Note that I agree with Feser that we have enforcable moral duties that we are obligated to obey even if we did not sign a contract (and indeed even anarcho-libertarians agree with Feser – though they boil it down to one primary one: non-agression).

    I’d suggest, btw, that one problem in Nozick, and Locke, is the social contractarian starting point, which led almost inexoriably to the Progressive conflation between “society” and “state” – as in “shouldn’t society do such-and-such?” by which they (the Progressive, at all times from their 19th century origins to the present) always mean “shouldn’t the state do such-and-such.” Yes perhaps we in society should do such-and-such but their is a missing logical step to leap from that to “it is done through the power of the state.” (I digress slightly, but IMO importantly).

    I think Tom Woods, for example – a believing Catholic, just like Ed Feser – would agree that we have moral duties to each other, including ones beyond non-aggression. But that does not lead directly to the conclusion that these obligations are enforceable by a monopoly-power state. (note: I myself am not convinced of anarcho-capitalism. But I do agree that critics of anarcho-capitalism, or even minimalism – including Feser, a very good philosopher who should know better – skip steps in reaching their conclusions, and then “under-describe” what follows from their own conclusions).

    Well, I didn’t get to everything, but this is long enough for a forum post. But the details of these things can get really long as you argue them through. Which is why, even though as a stand-alone the “Tale of the Slave” is incomplete, that doesn’t mean it’s not useful to invoke it in a discussion/debate with someone; it was always meant to illustrate an argument, so people can envision and grasp it better, not be entirely complete on its own. And that argument is that just because you’re allowed to drop your pebble into the bin with everyone else, that doesn’t mean your liberty is automatically respected and there is no grounds for you to complain when it is violated. You can, indeed, be a slave-with-a-vote and still be, in effect, a slave.


    Great response, thank you very much!


    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).

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