At My Real Job: Huemer, Intuitionism, and Anarchy
The state does many things that none of us would ever tolerate in our friends or neighbors.
If everyone judged the state and its agents by the same moral standards that they used for ordinary people, then nearly all of us would be libertarians. Judged in this way, essentially all governments behave appallingly.
“Yes,” comes the standard reply, “but we don’t judge governments by the same standards. The state is different, you see.”
Of course, it’s only fair to ask why that might be the case. This month at Cato Unbound, philosopher Michael Huemer does just that, addressing several of the standard reasons why the state purportedly has moral license to behave very differently from the rest of us. He finds them all lacking in one way or another.
Huemer’s an ethical intuitionist, and the method of intuitionism is to build a useful and intellectually rigorous argument by drawing on our most solid and most commonly shared intuitions. (There is a standard, obvious, and very strong multicultural objection to intuitionism, but let’s set it aside for the moment and assume that the intuitions of our own culture are up to the task.)
Huemer’s project here is to use non-state-regarding intuitions to build an account of the state. This method ultimately leads him to reject the state and instead points him toward philosophical anarchism. That is, if we were consistent in our intuitions, we would grant existing states no additional moral authority merely by virtue of their being states, and, if called upon to enact a state, we would refuse. But I’m not sure that the intuitionist method does the work he intends it to do.
In particular, why should we use our intuitions about things that are not the state as yardsticks to judge the state? Why not use our intuitions about the state itself? I would never think to use my intuitions about chess to fix my car (“Find a pawn weakness! Put a knight in front of it!”) or my intuitions about cooking to treat my child’s illness (“She needs more salt!”).
We should expect, in other words, that when we use intuitions outside their proper places, we may get little more than nonsense. And this even if we grant that intuitions can indeed be informative. This is itself an intuition, and one that philosophers frequently mistrust.
It would be true but possibly trivial, then, if people using non-state intuitions ended up finding the state somehow lacking. If they used the intuitions that touched a little bit closer to the problem at hand, they would get a very familiar and unsurprising result: Government is basically fine, say most folks’ state-related intuitions, and the state is very definitely allowed to act in lots of ways that mere mortals are not.
This line of thinking may not quite reach Hegel’s claim that the state is the march of God in the world, but ordinary people’s intuitions about the state clearly are not libertarian.
“Yes,” an intuitionist may answer, “but the difference between state intuitions and nonstate intuitions is huge, and it cries out for explanation, does it not?” Indeed it does. And yet if we are to be properly intuitionist, should we not perhaps give greater weight to the intuitions that are nearer at hand? Or at least give equal weight to all intuitions, in which case we have a dilemma?
This very type of dilemma is why in ancient times, philosophy embarked on the path that it did: Socrates and those who followed after him found that ordinary intuition was suffused with self-contradiction, wild swings of temperament, and inexplicable yet firmly rooted tendencies. They resolved to clean up this mess, often using abstract, systematized thinking, and the product of this effort is philosophy as we know it today.
I confess some doubts, then, about what intuitionism stands to accomplish. I still think that Huemer’s book is very worthwhile, in that nothing I have ever read before it has pointed out so clearly the ways in which most people’s shared intuitions are so very strange and contradictory hereabouts.
I don’t think we ought to straightforwardly replace one set of intuitions with the other — as if we really could — but I do think that whenever intuitions are this starkly divergent, we ought to use them with exceedingly great caution all around.