Off the Cuff #43: Questions for Free-Market Moralists


The guys continue their series through the book Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments with a discussion of Amia Srinivasan’s chapter on government: Questions for Free-Market Moralists. Srinivasan argues that Nozick’s Free Market moralism is flawed and is more reasonable to accept Rawls’ model of social justice. Ward, Leroy and Joe discuss these political theories. and offer an alternative from a Christian worldview.

Chapter & Author

This week’s show is built around argument #35 in Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments entitled, “Questions for Free-Market Moralists.” The author is Amia Srinivasan who is currently a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, and a tutorial fellow at St John’s College. Previously I was a (permanent) lecturer in the UCL Philosophy Department and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Srinivasan is an associate editor of the philosophy journal Mind and her current book project is The Contingent World: Epistemology, Genealogy, and Politics is about the way in which our beliefs, concepts and values are shaped by the contingencies of history, culture and evolution.

Srinivasan’s Argument

Srinivasan argues that there are two competing political theories governing the morality of the US economic system. The first was proposed in 1971 by John Rawls in his book, “A Theory of Justice” in which he penned a defense of modern liberalism advocating wealth redistribution. Rawls’ ideal moral economics was governed by a blind reason that guaranteed a reasonable standard of living for everyone. The second competing theory is the system of economic justice advocated in 1974 by Robert Nozick in, “Anarchy, State and Utopia” which argued that unrestricted free-markets always produced the moral good. Srinivasan poses four questions which she argues show the irrationality of Nozickian free-market theory and demonstrates why society must bend toward Rawls’ vision of welfare liberalism.

Key Quotes for Today

Rawls and Nozick represent the two poles of mainstream Western political discourse: welfare liberalism and laissez-faire liberalism, respectively. (It’s hardly a wide ideological spectrum, but that’s the mainstream for you.) On the whole, Western societies are still more Rawlsian than Nozickian: they tend to have social welfare systems and redistribute wealth through taxation. But since the 1970s, they have become steadily more Nozickian. Such creeping changes as the erosion of the welfare state, the privatization of the public sphere and increased protections for corporations go along with a moral worldview according to which the free market is the embodiment of justice. This rise in Nozickian thinking coincides with a dramatic increase in economic inequality in the United States over the past five decades (pg. 191)…— 


If you’re going to buy Nozick’s argument, you must say yes to all four. But doing so isn’t as easy as it might first appear.

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free? If you say yes, then you think that people can never be coerced into action by circumstances that do not involve the direct physical compulsion of another person.

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible? If you say yes, then you think that any free exchange can’t be exploitative and thus immoral.

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange? If you say yes, you think that what people deserve is largely a matter of luck

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing? If you say yes, then you think the only moral requirements are the ones we freely bring on ourselves — say, by making promises or contracts.(p. 193–195) — 


Thus Nozick’s view must be wrong: justice is not simply the unfettered exercise of the free market. Free market “morality” isn’t anything of the sort.

Some might object that these are extreme cases, and that all they show is that the market, to be fully moral, needs some tweaking. But to concede that there is more to freedom than consent, that there is such a thing as nonviolent exploitation, that people shouldn’t be rewarded and punished for accidents of birth, that we have moral obligations that extend beyond those we contractually incur — this is to concede that the entire Nozickian edifice is structurally unsound. The proponent of free market morality has lost his foundations….

Rejecting the Nozickian worldview requires us to reflect on what justice really demands (p. 196), — 

Related Stories or Books

John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice”

Since it appeared in 1971, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has become a classic. The author has now revised the original edition to clear up a number of difficulties he and others have found in the original book.

Rawls aims to express an essential part of the common core of the democratic tradition–justice as fairness–and to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, which had dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought since the nineteenth century. Rawls substitutes the ideal of the social contract as a more satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal persons. “Each person,” writes Rawls, “possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” Advancing the ideas of Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Lincoln, Rawls’s theory is as powerful today as it was when first published.

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Robert Nozick, “Anarchy, State and Utopia”

Winner of the 1975 National Book Award, this classic work is updated for the first time in 30 years: Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a foundational text in classical liberal thought, in which Robert Nozick created the intellectual underpinnings for what is now known as libertarianism. In his exhortation to limit the state to only the most minimal possible role, Nozick stirred tremendous controversy in an era predisposed to look to government as the solution to social injustice.

When originally published in 1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia was dismissed by many scholars as nothing more than a paean to the bourgeois status quo. But American politics have changed dramatically since then. Anarchy, State, and Utopia has become ever more relevant since the country has caught up with Nozick’s ideas–as Clinton proclaimed, “the era of big government is over.”

With fierce argumentation and meticulous logic, Robert Nozick gave birth to a new way of thinking about the relationship between the citizen and the state.

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Teens who laughed and recorded a drowning man in his final moments won’t face charges

(CNN) Five teenagers who taunted a drowning man as they recorded his death in Florida will not face charges because by law they were not required to help.

In a video recorded last July, the teens — ages 14 to 19 — laughed as Jamel Dunn, 31, struggled to stay afloat in a pond near his family’s home in Cocoa, police said.

The teens taunted the man that he was “going to die” and said they were not going to help him. Instead, the teens chuckled as they recorded the victim’s final moments and posted the video on YouTube.

During a subsequent interview the teens admitted they were “smoking weed,” police said.
The Cocoa Police Department had recommended to the state attorney’s office that the group face charges of failure to report a death.

But last week the state attorney’s office announced that the group will not be criminally prosecuted.
“As previously acknowledged by the Cocoa Police Department and this office, there is no Florida law that requires a person to provide emergency assistance under the facts of this case,” said Todd Brown, a spokesman for the Office of the State Attorney.

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Legislating Morality: Good Samaritan and Duty to Rescue Laws

The popular sitcom  Seinfeld  ended its 9-season run in 1998 by sending its 4 main characters to prison for neglecting to assist a stranger who was being carjacked at gunpoint. Their “crime” took place in a small town in Massachusetts, and was said in the show to be part of the town’s new set of “Good Samaritan laws.” As a result of the airing of that episode, many people came to believe that it is legal, or even common, to be arrested for doing nothing to assist others in need.

The truth is that Good Samaritan laws do exist in all 50 states, but they are not what the writers of Seinfeld portrayed them as. Good Samaritan laws do not compel a person to take action for fear of legal recourse, but rather they protect them if, in the event of rendering aid, they accidentally harm someone. A common example of this might be improperly performing CPR to someone whose heart has stopped, or causing spinal damage by recklessly yanking someone from the wreckage of a car accident.

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in by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

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Officers Had No Duty to Protect Students in Parkland Massacre, Judge Rules

The school district and sheriff’s office in the Florida county that is home to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had no constitutional duty to protect the students there during the deadly February massacre, a federal judge has said in a ruling.

The decision was made in a lawsuit filed by 15 students who said they suffered trauma during the Feb. 14 attack in Parkland, Fla. A total of 17 students and staff members lost their lives; 17 others were injured.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz, 20, the former Stoneman Douglas student who is accused of opening fire at the school on Valentine’s Day. He has pleaded not guilty, but his lawyers have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.

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John Stossel: San Francisco has become the slum by the bay — Bad laws cause city’s homeless crisis

San Francisco is one of the richest cities in the world. It’s given us music, technology and elegant architecture. Now it gives us filthy homeless encampments.One urban planner told me, “I just returned from the Tenderloin (a section of San Francisco). It’s worse than slums of India, Haiti, Africa!” San Francisco is one of the richest cities in the world. It’s given us music, technology and elegant architecture. Now it gives us filthy homeless encampments.

One urban planner told me, “I just returned from the Tenderloin (a section of San Francisco). It’s worse than slums of India, Haiti, Africa!” I’ve never seen slums in Africa, but I’ve seen them in Haiti and India. What I saw in San Francisco looked similar. As one local resident put it, “There’s shit everywhere. It’s just a mess out here.” There’s also lots of mental illness. One man told us, “Vampires are real. I’m paranoid as hell.” San Francisco authorities mostly leave the mentally ill to fend for themselves on the street.

Other vagrants complain about them. “They make it bad for people like us that hang out with a sign,” one beggar told us. San Francisco is a pretty good place to “hang out with a sign.” People are rarely arrested for vagrancy, aggressive panhandling or going to the bathroom in front of people’s homes. In 2015, there were 60,491 complaints to police, but only 125 people were arrested.

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Questions for Free-Market Moralists


[This is Kelly’s original article reprinted in the book] In 1971 John Rawls published “A Theory of Justice,” the most significant articulation and defense of political liberalism of the 20th century. Rawls proposed that the structure of a just society was the one that a group of rational actors would come up with if they were operating behind a “veil of ignorance” — that is, provided they had no prior knowledge what their gender, age, wealth, talents, ethnicity and education would be in the imagined society. Since no one would know in advance where in society they would end up, rational agents would select a society in which everyone was guaranteed basic rights, including equality of opportunity. Since genuine (rather than “on paper”) equality of opportunity requires substantial access to resources — shelter, medical care, education — Rawls’s rational actors would also make their society a redistributive one, ensuring a decent standard of life for everyone.

read more..

About this Series

Our universities, grade schools, and media are led by a diversity of thinkers who are each, in their own way, advancing a fundamental “rethink” of how we do Ethics: a titanic shift that will forever change the way you and I experience daily life. The one unifying theme which connects this hodgepodge of ethical theories is the desire to marginalize Christian thinkers dedicated to orthodoxy and remove from the public square any meaningful discussion of the Judeo-Christian worldview. What consequences may come from this social-experiment on Western civilization, nobody knows for sure, but the guys have some ideas on what lies ahead. Given the virulence of this moral seed-change, Leroy, Ward and Joe decided to create a series of videocasts dedicated to exposing the barrenness of this new ethical adventure.  The framework for this series is built around the book Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments: A Stone Reader which was adapted from the NY Times columns of various Philosophers and thinkers hoping to lead this naturalist-revolution. You may be new to Off the Cuff, so feel free to catch up on past episodes. We also encourage listeners to get a copy of the book, read ahead for each week’s show, and join our live broadcast with you questions and insights.


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