Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Burden Of The Future And The Limits Of Moral Reasoning

Arguments against abortion can take a number of forms, but there seem to be two which ground their resistance in the alleged right to life of the embryo, what I will call the equivalence argument and the potentiality argument. The equivalence argument claims that, at least in respect to killing, that at some point in gestation, the embryo acquires the same moral properties and so the same rights as a typical adult human being, and so it is wrong to kill it in exactly the same way as it is wrong to kill a typical adult human being. The point in gestation varies across versions of the argument: fertilisation, acquisition of sufficient neural infrastructure to feel pain, and viability outside the womb are some of the more common. The potentiality argument claims, rather than the embryo acquiring, in this respect, the same moral properties as a typical adult human being and so having a right against being killed, that the embryo gains a right to life not because of properties it has now, but properties it will have in the future. Again, this right can be gained at a variety of points in the 'lifecycle' of the embryo. The point though, is that the arguments are different, at least in their form, because one invokes properties which exist in the present, and one invokes properties which may exist at some point in the future.

This might seem to be to the advantage of the equivalence argument: properties which may exist at some point in the future are fairly slippery things, since not only do they not exist now, but they may never exist. Michael Tooley has offered a rather devastating critique of the potentiality argument, which, ignoring the quite obvious problem of regress in the invoking of potential, asks us rather pointedly whether we should care about potential at all. Imagine that there are kittens which, with a single injection, could be made to develop in such a way to come to possess whatever properties ground the basic moral status of adult human beings. So far as Tooley is concerned, if we have a duty of some sort to bring the potentialities of a human embryo into being, then we have a duty of an identical sort to bring the potentialities of these kittens into being on the simple ground of consistency, since in terms of the potentialites of becoming an agent relevantly like a typical human adult, the two are identical. Most of us, I think, feel that we don't have a duty to inject the kittens and turn them into cats with the intellectual faculties of the typical adult human being, so, presumably, we don't have a duty to do the equivalent with human embryos, which must mean that invoking their potentialities as a ground for a duty not to destroy them rests on a mistake.

The equivalence argument, which relies on the claim that, at least at some point during pregnancy, the embryo acquires the properties which ground moral concern about taking the lives of typical human adults, however, also has a number of faults. The most obvious of these is that human embryos are not typical human adults, and have few of the properties which distinguish typical human adults from other animals, making it rather difficult to claim that they share whatever property or set of properties it is that grounds moral concern about taking the lives of typical human adults. It seems unlikely that the simple capacity to feel pain grounds the moral concern we have about taking the lives of typical human adults, since it appears that most other animals feel pain, and most of us tend to think that killing other animals is probably morally acceptable, as long as it is done humanely. Likewise, viability outside of the womb wouldn't seem to ground moral concern about taking life, since we would neither regard the taking of a human life which relied on the direct interference of others as necessarily any differently from the taking of any other human life, nor do we take whether they can survive on their own or not to be an important consideration in the slaughter of livestock. Finally, fertilisation - at which point the embryo is a single celled organism - would by the logic of equivalence imply serious moral concern for other single celled organisms, like amoeba.

Thus, it seems that there is nothing to be said, from the perspective of the rights of the embryo, against abortion. This would not of course necessarily exhaust reasons against abortion. It might be possible to make arguments on the grounds of responsibility and maybe also from other, non-rights-based, grounds, grounds of the desirability of the attiitudes towards the embryo and sexual behaviour in general which abortion might embody. This, of course is not to endorse any of these arguments, merely to mention that, however good or bad they might be, they perhaps could be made. Still, even if such arguments could be made, I think it remains rather shocking to think that an embryo never has a right to life, if for no other reason than it implies that infants do not either. Michael Tooley, in the article where he makes the kittens-embryos analogy, in fact does argue, and on much the same grounds that I have presented here, that infanticide and abortion are morally equivalent. After all, infants lack many of the capacities typical of adult humans, just as embryos do, most obviously those associated with rational agency, which at least since Kant has often been invoked as the grounds of moral concern for typical adult human beings.

Infanticide, at least in Western societies, is regarded as utterly taboo, yet according to Tooley, that taboo is baseless. Cheeringly, I disagree. I think Tooley's dismissal of the potentiality argument misses something important about the right to life of typical adult human beings, and that because of what it misses, the dismissal may not work. Not only that, it may indicate something about the limits of moral reasoning. What Tooley misses about the right to life of typical adult human beings is that right to life seems to rest on wholly future-related considerations. The badness of death, as separate from the badness of the pain associated with it, seems to rest, at least for the person who dies, in the plans they don't carry through, and can't make, in the way that it can act as an artificial break on their authoring of their life. I don't think we'd care so much, if much at all, about death, if people were very quickly reincarnated as themselves, able to continue living their lives as a meaningful and roughly coherent whole. Those future-related considerations, though, are all about potentialities: the other things that could have happened in that life, the other shapes it could have been given granted more time.

If that's true though, the potentialities argument for a right to life of embryos and infants could surely also be made to work: just as we are concerned about the things that could have happened in the life of an adult human being when it is ended, we can likewise be concerned about the things that could have happened in the life of an embryo or infant in the event that it is ended. This brings us to the other problem with the potentialities argument though, that if we are concerned with potentialities, there is something of a regress. Surely no-one is obliged to procreate as much as possible in order to realise the potential of all the children that could be born, yet, if abstract potential matters as it would seem the argument suggests it does, then it appears to imply it. It is not abstract potential that matters though: it is the potential of a human life, a concrete thing with particular limits. Think of it the other way: there's something unsettling, not quite right, about the idea of immortality, as though the lack of at least a rough time-frame in which to construct a life subtly undermines the notion of constructing a life, leaves it nothing against which to struggle, to define itself. We do not have a duty to maximise potential in the abstract, but not to constrain potential in the concrete, in what exists anyway, which I think is enough to suggest a cut-off point for the right to life embryos derive from their potentialities, that of viability outside of the womb, of an existence independent from their mother. Before that point, they are not really a separate existence, since their lives are totally tied up with that of the mother, but afterwards, they are a separate existence, a concrete thing in the world, a thing of its own.

Tooley of course denies the moral relevance of viability, but I think that's part of a more general mistake that he makes of failing to situate his examples in the linguistic practices of moral assessment, of not thinking about eminently normative categories like 'a human life', of rather concentrating on examples filled with categories and concepts taken from their normal contexts, stripped of the connections and interlinkings with provide them with meaning. I'm not entirely sure what we should do with kittens we could make develop into cats with all the moral features of typical adult humans, but the idea that they would be equivalent, in all the relevant ways, to infants or embryos fails to grasp that infants and embryos, once they have passed the relevant developmental point, are a human life, whereas what we are doing with the kittens is choosing to make them into something similar in one very important respect to a human life, and so they cannot already be a human life. Moral reasoning comes up against limits like these, and for all their alterations across time and space, they must be at least confronted and explored before being dismissed.

Monday, October 24, 2005


As regular readers may be aware, I sometimes go to the pub to discuss short-ish works in political theory. Last week, we were discussing Derek Parfit's work on intergenerational justice, in particular justice towards future generations: what we owe to those who are not yet born. Unreflectively, most of us think we have definite duties towards future generations. It is nigh-on axiomatic for example that we should not deplete the resources of the planet, for example, because we have a responsibility to ensure that our children and our children's children are not left in a situation, because of our profiligacy, of want. Parfit, however, offers something called the Non-Identity Paradox which appears to cast doubt on the conclusion that we have anything more than a fairly limited duty of beneficence towards future generations. I think Parfit's paradox involves a confusion of two types of responsibility, and the fact that it is paradoxical rests on that confusion.

What the Non-Identity paradox does is make future generations who complain about their rights-violations into future generations who complain about their own existence. Imagine there is a decision taken, and that as a result of that decision, x will be born, and live a life that is fairly miserable, but still preferable over not existing at all - a life worth living in Parfit's terms. Imagine at least of the events that makes x's life miserable is an event which, were it to be done to someone currently living, we would describe as a rights-violation. Imagine further that all this is a direct causal result of the initial decision, so that by taking that decision, we are bringing x into existence, and then doing something that would conventionally be described as a rights-violation to them. Parfit's point is that x is doing something very strange if they complain about the decision which both brought them into existence and, in conventional terms, violated one of rights, because they are saying, effectively, that they would prefer that they didn't exist, even though ex hypothesi, they do prefer existence over non-existence. Because they can't complain about the decision to bring them into existence, they can't complain about the rights-violation either, as that flows directly from the decision to bring them into existence: they are effectively given a choice between having some of their rights violated, but not being able to do anything about it and not being able to claim any compensation, and not existing at all.

Consider the application of this thought-experiment to the real world. It would suggest that Union Carbide have no duty to compensate children born with disabilities in Bhopal after the disaster there in 1984, since, plausibly, that disaster affected their parent's lives in such a way that had the disaster not occurred, different children would have been born. That, to my mind, shows immediately that Parfit must be wrong, whilst also suggesting why. Intuitively, in the Union Carbide case, we think that the negligence of Union Carbide makes them responsible for any and only harms which could be reasonably expected to flow from that negligence. Just because, for example, we could trace a causal chain from the leak at Bhopal to freak hailstorms ten years later over Kansas which destroyed a farmer's crops, or people who became more seriously injured as a result of persistent refusal to accept assistance on reasonable terms, it doesn't mean we would hold Union Carbide responsible for those harms. Causal responsibility - having caused some event - does not imply moral responsibility - being liable for its costs. Likewise, just as if I sell a knife to someone whom I have good reason to suspect will use it to cause someone else harm, even if they would have caused them similar or even identical harm without me selling them that knife, I am partially morally responsible for that harm, even though I am not causally responsible. Moral responsibility does not imply causal responsibility.

So, moral and causal responsibility come apart: neither is a sufficient condition of the other. The Non-Identity paradox, however, assumes that they are identical. In the paradox, the causal responsibility for having brought x into being becomes a moral responsbility for any benefits that x gains as a result of their existence, which then, providing x's existence is worth living, absolves those who brought x into being of the violations of x's rights, because x prefers, of the two options available, living. The paradox, I think, isn't really about identity at all - the fact that, absent the policy, x wouldn't exist at all is totally irrelevant, because if x does exist, as they will once the policy has been decided on, then x can have their rights violated in exactly the same way as any other person - it's about responsibility, and it shows, amongst other things, that even very clever philosophers can make mistakes.

(Note: much of this owes a heavy debt of inspiration to Steve Winter)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Albania And Traffic Lights

Following up last week's piece arguing in favour of redistribution, I want to reinforce a key point in that argument. Recall that the set of claims I called the Democrat's Insight argues that because all social systems are coercive, throwing around allegations of coercion without comparative assessments of the moral seriousness of that coercion isn't going to do much good. Here, I want to draw attention to an argument which should be familiar to anyone who's studied much political theory, which compares two situations, one where, in terms of numbers of acts prohibited, a huge loss of freedom has occured, but we are not particularly concerned by this loss, and another where, in terms of numbers of acts prohibited, a much smaller loss of freedom has occured, but we are very seriously concerned by it. This generates something of a paradox: loss of freedom X is a greater loss of freedom than loss of freedom Y, but loss of freedom Y is much more morally troubling than loss of freedom X.

The argument in question is Charles Taylor's, found in his piece in David Miller's 'Liberty', where he compares Albania under Hoxha, and London. In Albania, under Hoxha, there were no traffic lights, but religious worship was outlawed. Contrast this with London, where there are traffic lights, but freedom of conscience is respected. Now given that most people don't worship that frequently, maybe once or twice a week, and people who have cars are stopped by traffic lights tens of times a day, it looks like the number of acts that are prohibited by a ban on organised religion are fewer than the number of acts that are prohibited by having a system of traffic control. Surely, however, we would regard the loss of freedom of conscience as much more morally troubling than the loss of traffic-light free roads. In sheer quantitative terms, traffic lights are more of an imposition than a ban on public religious ceremonies, but that balance does not pass over into the qualitative assessment.

The relevance of this to the Democrat's Insight is that it makes much more compelling the idea that assessment of the moral seriousness of coercion need to be made. My point about redistribution could be rephrased as something saying the coercion involved in a distribution which does not regard unrestricted market incomes as sacrosanct is like the coercion involved in the traffic lights in London, and the coercion involved in a distribution does regard unrestricted market incomes as sacrosanct is like the coercion involved in banning public religious ceremonies.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Only Slightly Manic Linking

First things first. A friend of mine, Ben, who was until I perhaps unwisely ventured into the world of work a coursemate, has started his own blog. Doubtless presuming to a status as arbiter of my lonely gaggle of occasional readers' taste which is laughably out of my reach, I recommend it, on the basis that he is clever, interesting and an all-round nice bloke. He has been added to the blogroll.

Now, some more philosophical stuff. Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise has been doing posts on request, in order to raise money to go and report on whatever part of the coming judgement Tom DeLay, erstwhile leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, is receiving early. She's done ones on the end justifying the means thing and the foundationalism - coherentism distinction in epistemology. Both are fine introductions for the philosophically uninitiated.

Also, Political Arguments has a nice discussion going about the metaethical implications of Rawls, which I think may well be substanially wrongheaded - it forgets that Rawls is a political theorist, not a moral philosopher, and so nothing he says about the epistemological status of his normative claims necessarily implies anything about the epistemological status of normative claims more generally - but is nevertheless thoughtful and thought-provoking.

In more philosophy-related shenigans, Stumbling and Mumbling finds someone who thinks, more or less, that something being meritocratic justifies it - well, he thinks that laissez-faire capitalism's alleged meritocracy insulates it from leftish critiques, which is much the same thing, just with an added, somewhat implausible, empirical premise. This is, quite frankly, bollocks. If we, at age ten, killed everyone who couldn't run one hundred metres in under fifteen seconds, say, that would be meritocratic in the sense that on the basis of reasonably fair assessment of some ability, goods and bads would be distributed. However, this would clearly be really, really, really evil. Ergo, meritocracy doesn't necessarily justify social arrangements. The running example suggests that some attention to the goods and bads distributed by the social arrangements, and the pattern of that distribution, is needed. I suspect that laissez-faire capitalism does less well on this score.

In the last quasi-philosophy-related item, Matt Yglesias seems to claim that the horror of the Allied bombing of Germany in the Second World War is mitigated by the fact that the Germans could have given up, or overthrown Hitler, or something. I find this incredibly difficult to accept. Bombing genuine military targets without taking special care not to harm civilians is seriously wrong, whilst indiscriminate bombing of civilians is not only, I understand, a recognised war crime but totally f*cking disgusting. The former is a long way from being justified by the Germans at worst support for the Nazi regime and at best failure, but not without trying, to solve a significant collective action problem, but the latter is basically totally incapable of justification. It would have been totally unjustifiable to slowly cook Hitler, had he been captured by the Allies at the end of the war, and so surely the idea that there is anything that can mitigate doing the same to tens of thousands of civilians is simply repulsive.

Finally, Stumbling and Mumbling has some problems with London. He is lying, about all of them, the snotty-nosed little provincial oik, as I can only say I expect of someone who watches enough of Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Eastenders to be able to comment with confidence on the the relative attractiveness of their female cast members. It may be that he lives north of the River, and is judging on the basis of that alone, but that just shows that, as every South Londoner knows and has known forever, North Londoners are self-obsessed arrogant b*stards.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Clever Academic Links

Anyone who reads this should probably already know about these things, but in case you don't:

Crooked Timber has a helpful discussion of where and how much to publish as a graduate student in Political Theory here and there is what looks like a rather useful resource, with downloadable papers and all, for egalitarians here.

There. Don't say I don't do anything useful.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The £12556, Parasitic Violinists And The Democrat's Insight

Since, being currently unemployed, it seems sensible to be financially prudent, I thought I'd work out roughly how much I spend in a year, on the assumption that I'll spend about the same amount this year. Going through my bank statements, I found that I spent, roughly, £12,556 in the last twelve months. I don't live frugally - I'm not a total hedonist, but I like a fine glass of wine as much as the next man as long as he is French, and I enjoy my food as much as the next man too, as long as he is French as well - but that doesn't seem like a lot of money to me to lead a perfectly comfortable life, especially when more than five grand of it went on university fees. I'm not saying that I couldn't have found things to spend any more money on, but I don't think that I could really claim that I had a moral interest compelling enough in having more money that the simple fact of my not having that much was a significant moral harm. Doubling my income certainly wouldn't have made my life better to the same degree that halving it would have made it worse: whatever moral interests I have in certain levels of income, above twelve thousand they don't seem to be particularly powerful.

The implication of this, that, if I am a suitably generalisable case - I'm willing to concede I'm not, but someone needs to tell me what it is I'm missing out on, so that I can go out and enjoy it - it is possible to live a reasonably comfortable life in Britain on around twelve thousand pounds a year, barring serious illness or destruction of property, seems to me quite radical. It's radical because it suggests that no-one has anything more, in the absence of serious illness or destruction of property, than at best a pro tanto and at worst a weak prima facie claim to any income they have over around twelve thousand pounds a year. It suggests this because of two little points I will, partly for simplicity, call the Parasitic Violinists and the Democrat's Insight.

The Parasitic Violinists is owed to Judith Thompson's 'A Defense of Abortion', which should be acknowledge even if I will now use it in a way which rather cuts against the original point. Thompson asks us, in the course of making what I now believe is an unsuccessful defence of abortion where she grants that the fetus has the same right to life as all human beings generically possess, to imagine waking up with a violinist symbiotically attached to our back. She claims that we are not obliged to bear the Parasitic Violinist's use of our bodies for physical support for the rest of our lives, or even nine months, even if they'll die as soon as we detach them, the polemical point being that the violinist is like a fetus with the same right to life as generically possessed by all human beings. I'm skeptical about both the analogy with fetuses and the ease with which Thompson dismisses the idea that there is a discussion to be had about the degree of sacrifice we should be required to make for the Parasitic Violinist. The point here, however, is that Thompson happily acknowledges that there are some sacrifices we are required to make for the good of others - she mentions an hour with the Violinist as obviously required, and I think a couple of weeks in bed seems fairly reasonable, in order to save the life of someone else, once circumstance has made you the only person capable of saving their life and you are so proximate to them.

Granted that that is the case, that my levels of consumption are suitably generalisable, and that typically income has diminishing marginal impact, which seems fairly uncontroversial, progressive taxation away from any grossly unequal distribution is surely, ceterus paribus, morally required. Those who gain from the redistribution are like the Violinists, whilst those who lose under it are like those on whom the Violinists are parasitic, because the goods they give up are much less important to them than the goods that are received by those who gain, just as my loss of mobility for a day, or even a week, is much less important than the life of the Violinist. As long as we acknowledge that a) there is a level above which there is no compelling moral imperative arising solely from the situation of the individual in question to grant them more goods or income, whilst below it there are such imperatives; b) above that level, income generally has a diminishing marginal impact, that is, each extra unit of income is generally worth less than the previous one; and that c) some level of sacrifice to grant goods to others is morally required, redistribution must be, ceterus paribus, mandated.

Right-libertarian might not accept this conclusion: they, it strikes me, are likely to reject the Parasitic Violinists claim, saying that I am never obliged to keep the Violinist alive. This obviously makes them morally repugnant, but there is another way to force the conclusion, which they do not have such a simple reply to. This is the Democrat's Insight, that every social system is coercive, which is of course precisely why every social system requires the consent of those who live under it. A social system which does not act, in some way, to maintain itself is not a social system at all, just as a system of laws that is not also a system of positive laws is not a system of laws at all. Yet the maintenance of a social system or the enforcement of a set of positive laws is coercive: it requires that incentives to uphold and threats against undermining or breaking the rules in question are put in place, and that is coercion.

Not only are all social systems and all sets of laws coercive, all such rules as they relate to the distribution of income are coercive, for they are rules and rules are, qua rules, coercive. Given that all systems of distribution are coercive, the right-libertarian's objection to systems of distribution which require that those successful in the market redistribute some of their income towards those less successful, which is based on this being coercion and a loss of freedom, loses most, if not all, its force. Of course progressive taxation is coercive, just as enforcing a Nozickean set of property rights is coercive too. Simply throwing around allegations of coercion is not going to get you anywhere, because what needs to be shown is that the coercion in one is more morally troubling than the coercion in the other.

The degree to which coercion is morally troubling is undoubtedly related to the moral costs of the coercion: someone who is coerced gives something up, either by giving in to the threat and thus losing whatever it is that the threat was designed to get out of them, or by holding out and thus suffering whatever was threatened. The coercion of someone who loses less in either or both of these cases is less serious to the degree that they lose less: more harm, for example, is done, all other things being equal, by my extorting ten pounds out of you than five. Thus, in order to assess how morally troubling coercion is, we need to be able to assess what the loss involved is. This immediately returns us to the claim that I am comfortable with annual consumption of around twelve thousand pounds, because that indicates that the moral loss of the coercion involved in taking from those with incomes above that is less than the moral loss of the coercion involved in not giving to those with incomes below that.

It's important to realise here that 'taking' and 'not giving' are equivalent here: the coercion, in this instance, of the right-libertarian system rests in not instituting a system which redistributes, while the coercion, in this instance, of the system which redistributes rests in not instituting a right-libertarian system. Neither of the two systems is in any sense prior to the other, and indeed, it would be better to refer to them as system A and system B, with distributions A' and B', which benefit agents A* and B* in ways a and b, so as to remove the impression, which I believe right-libertarianism depends on, that distributing goods in a way other than as the free market would dictate is redistribution and involves coercion, whereas distributing goods as the free market would is perfectly natural and does not involve coercion in exactly the same way. Right-libertarians may want to attempt to resist this move too, but they have to realise that the system of property rights they favour is a social system which mandates a particular set of costs and benefits, and as such is coercive, just as every other is, meaning that in order to justify it over some other social systems, the costs and benefits of that coercion have to be assessed.

Thus, because we have an obligation to make some degree of sacrifice, because income generally has diminishing marginal impact, and because living under a right-libertarian set of property rights does not in fact involve less coercion, progressive redistribution has a powerful moral argument in its favour. Given my experience, making sure that every adult in the UK had an income of at least twelve thousand pounds a year, and then working upwards from that, seems like a start to me.

(Substanial editing for content and clarity in the parts dealing with the Democrat's Insight, 18/10/05)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Freedom As Possession

Hillel Steiner, a left libertarian of quasi-Marxist bent, has been for some time trying to popularise, at least amongst academic philosophers and political theorists, the idea of freedom as possession of physical objects. I was talking to someone who seemed convinced by Steiner last week, and have, with interuptions, been thinking about it a fair bit since. Unsurprisingly, I think this is not only a not a particularly strong account of freedom, but also in some ways a pernicious one. It's pernicious in the sense that it is typical of the school of analytical marxism of which Steiner is a part in what could be regarded as its systematic unwillingness to do justice to the moral complexity of politics, to acknowledge any other way of doing philosophy than the reductionism of deductive logic. Exactly what it is about the worlds outside those of a false rigour and certainty that so terrifies them, I'm not sure: an extremism left over from their genuinely subversive days, perhaps. The freedom-as-possession-of-physical-objects account, quite apart from being worth showing as shallow all by itself, is quite a good example of the failings of this kind of way of philosophising I think.

Steiner's most well-known exposition of his view is in David Miller's Liberty, in his article 'Individual Liberty', which argues, roughly, that since you want to do whatever it is that you do when you are threatened, being threatened can't involve a loss of liberty as you freely choose to do whatever it is that you do when you are threatened. Once it is established, so far as Steiner is concerned, that only physical impediments can be counted as restrictions of freedom, it seems to make sense to say that freedom consists in the possession of physical objects because by possessing physical objects - the key to the cell, for example - the restrictions which other physical objects impose can be overcome. I say seems because the claim that physical limitations can only be overcome by the use, in some way, of other physical objects, not only as a necessary but also a sufficient condition, seems dubious to me and is not much argued for by Steiner in that piece at least. The unfreedom of a lack of strength seems to require not just physical objects but also a degree of willpower - that involved in building one's physical strength - to be overcome, for example.

Still, we can allow that claim to stand. Steiner's initial argument and claim is so obviously counter-intuitive that, so far as I am concerned, it simply can't be true: it would mean that no law can possibly, of itself, threaten freedom since it is merely a threat to take some action, and it simply cannot be possible that law cannot remove freedom. This is, quite apart from anything else, quite radically anti-democratic, since it would strip of any force the most obvious justification for democracy, that law, like all social institutions, involves a loss of freedom, a loss of freedom which must be consented, in some sense, to. The reasons it is wrong are, I think, that it fails to realise that when a threat is made, if plausible, it removes a course of action that previously existed, that of doing whatever it is that will activate the threat, without the threat being carried out: the threatened party can no longer take that action simpliciter, and so they are surely no longer free to take that action simpliciter.

Not only is Steiner's argument in favour of his conclusion flawed, the conclusion itself is flawed. The idea that freedom consists in the possession of physical objects lacks an adequate argument in favour of it, it is also both fails to capture much of the usual use of the term freedom and would, if true, in a sense, be totally unenlightening. On the first point, it fails to include, without significantly distorting semantic gymnastics, the unfreedom of addiction, say, or a closed mind, since how these might be construed as resulting from some kind of physical restriction is far from clear, being as they are internal limits, within the agent in question. The types of freedom lacked in these cases may not be particularly important as political or civil freedoms - at least, an argument is required to show that they are the proper subject of public political concern - but they are surely comprehensible as types of freedom: the narrowing of option sets in both cases is standardly taken to be a loss of freedom, and so an account of freedom which does not and cannot see them as kinds of freedom is surely less than ideal.

Steiner's response here is that the whole point of his account of freedom is to disallow these kinds of claims about freedom. I am, for epistemological reasons, skeptical of this reply, but we must be prepared to allow revision, even radical revision, of our concepts, so Steiner may well have a point here and would likely not accept the epistemological reasons anyway. It is therefore important that there is a second strand to the critique, one which is in a way more fundamental. Steiner's account of freedom is trapped in a kind of regress, I think, because it is parasitic on the notion of freedom, and so requires some further explanation of freedom to make it useful, to give it application, to allow it to pick things out. I am not sure if the regress is vicious, and even if it were vicious in the case of a general account of freedom, it is not in an account of a particular type of freedom, so Steiner can rescue himself, if at the cost of the general claims of his account.

The notion of freedom which Steiner's account depends on is embedded in the idea of possession. I initially thought that the best angle of attack on the idea of freedom as possession of physical objects would be through the idea of use-rights - no-one possesses things exclusively, because other people have use-rights over them, like a right of way, for example, and so possession cannot be a key part of freedom, because there is no possession, and surely some freedom. I don't think this works, because we do sometimes possess things exclusively - the air we breathe, for example - and so there could be freedom. What it does suggest though, is a consideration of exactly what it is to possess something. It seems that to possess something is to be free to use it, perhaps within defined limits, as you please. I possess my body if and only if I can do more or less what I like with it that does not infringe on the possessions, including their bodies, of others, and likewise for other things.

Possession is thus parasitic on an account of freedom, because to possess something is to be free to do as you please with it, and so an account of freedom which depends on possession has got it the wrong way round. That is surely crippling for Steiner's account, because what he means by possession, which is what must be supplying the content of his theory of freedom, will remain utterly opaque in the absence of a theory of freedom which does not lean so totally on that very notion. It is as if Steiner has said 'x is x': quite true, but certainly not anything qualifying for a title quite as grand as a theory or permitting him to attempt drastic revisions of what x usually means. This is in a way typical of the kind of hardcore analytical philosophy that Steiner represents because it fails to see that conceptual analysis, particularly conceptual analysis as deep of that of freedom, is of necessity holistic, involving consideration of a whole host of other concepts simultaneously. In the case of freedom, an understanding of the purposes to which freedom might be put is needed, a point which is hardly particularly novel.

(Edited somewhat for harshness to Steiner)