Bill’s Fishers

Bill Fisher presented a challenge to the tenet that the initiation of physical force is the fundamental evil, by proposing a scenario in which the people of a village are all shareholders in a fish-processing factory, and they each own a long strip of land 100 metres wide and parallel to the coast. It happens that the only source of supply for the factory, which is their only source of food, becomes fish from the ocean which can’t be eaten unless processed in the factory. Bill put forward a number of scenarios, the gist being that if one of the people was irrational and forbade the others to cross his land, they would all starve unless they forced their way across, and therefore it is simplistic to forbid the initiation of force.

Bill Fisher (TableAus , Nov/Dec 1997) presents a challenge to the principle that the initiation of physical force against another person is the fundamental evil in human relationships. He presents a scenario in which the people of a village will starve unless their factory has access to fish: but such access is not possible without force, because a land-owner refuses to allow a road across his land, that lies between the factory and the fish.

As a curious aside, Bill blames “economic rationalism”, which he seems to mean anyone proposing less government controls and more individual freedom, for “disastrous consequences in our society”. That one is as old as government interference. “We have a mixed economy, with some freedom and some government controls. Things aren’t going as well as we like, so the fault must lie with freedom and we need more controls. Gee, we’ve added controls and things are getting worse. That damn freedom is a powerful force for evil! We need more controls!” And so on to the absurdity of Russians blaming the pale shadow of capitalism they have achieved for the accumulated problems from decades of government control.

To return to the main point, Bill admits that his problem is highly artificial, but thinks that this doesn’t matter. But in fact, it is the crux of the matter. Even Arthur J. knows that a valid philosophy has to be based on the real world, even if he can’t apply it. A valid principle has to be determined by reference to reality, not by reference to fairy tales of what might happen if a lake loses its fish overnight, there are no other sources of food, no existing roads to an ocean whose only fish are poisonous, and you have really bad neighbours.

In the real world, there are practically no situations that will (as opposed to might in my fevered imagination ) arise in which the initiation of physical force could ever be a valid option. Certainly in my entire life I’ve never come across such a situation. This is because of the nature of man, as I have demonstrated before.

So I reject the entire premise of Bill’s argument. It is irrelevant. You cannot derive a principle to apply to life in the real world by appealing to imaginary extreme circumstances. That is easily demonstrated by analysing Bill’s own example. He is trying to prove that in life as we live it, the initiation of force is valid: if he can show that it is valid in life as we don’t live it. He wants to overturn justice in this world: by appealing to what might be justice in fairyland. What he wishes to prove is that in the real world it is moral for the rational, the good, the productive and the just to be sacrificed to the desires of the irrational, the bad, the incompetent and the seekers of the unearned: by arguing from a scenario in which without force, the rational will be sacrificed to the irrational. Well, I can agree with that underlying premise: it is not moral to sacrifice the rational to the wants of the irrational. So I guess we agree after all! Thanks, Bill!

It is strange that Bill accuses me of avoiding the complexities of real humans and generalising from simple systems: when it is he who is doing just that. And not only that, but from a simple system that isn’t even an approximation of the real world!

Nevertheless, to give the devil his due, Bill’s problem does raise two interesting issues that are worth exploring.

The first is the nature of principles. Principles are like any other abstraction. They are not absolute moral commandments handed down from God which must be obeyed ignoring context. We’ve already noted examples of this: that lying is moral when under duress (Reflections 12), and that the delegation of your right of self-defence to the government doesn’t stop you defending yourself with force in emergencies (Reflections 16). Principles only hold within a particular context. The more fundamental the principle, the wider the context. In the case of the initiation of physical force, it is a very fundamental principle. It is so fundamental that I could simply flatly state that in the real world, circumstances will never arise that would justify it: and I’d be unlucky to be proved wrong in a thousand years. But no principle ever commands you to martyr yourself to the irrational: because all principles are founded on the needs of the life of a rational being . A principle cannot overturn its own basis. But if ever the circumstance arose for a rational person in which there truly was no alternative but to initiate force in order to live: the principle still holds to the extent that it would have to be the minimum effective level and (if appropriate) accompanied by objectively just compensation.

The second issue is this: does the right to property allow you to block other people’s access to the use and enjoyment of their property? I think not. The right to property includes the right to use that property. Therefore, it does not include the right to encircle someone else’s property leaving them no means of access. I’d call this the principle of “emergency easement”. If there is no other reasonable access to your property (unless you bought it as such), you have the right to cross someone else’s property, with fair compensation. Of course, what is reasonable and fair should be decided on the details of the case by an objective court of law.

Some related examples will help to clarify and justify this. If I’m standing around, I have the right not to be shoved aside by someone else. But that right is in a certain, normal context. It cannot be extended to a right for me and my gang to surround someone else and prevent him or her from going about their business, using my right not to be shoved as a weapon to block their freedom of movement. They have a perfect right to shove me out of the way, or for that matter, to be rescued by armed police. Similarly, if I park my car in a public place, nobody has a right to tow it anywhere. But if I park so as to block someone else’s car in, that gives them the right to use reasonable force to move my car. I see no reason not to extend this principle to land. Land is different, in that it is immobile. But that immobility is what makes the granting of easement necessary.

I must note that this “principle”, while interesting as a theoretical analysis of property rights, has little relevance except perhaps as an arcane footnote in the philosophy of law. It would be truly amazing if a situation ever arose that required invoking it!

As a final point, I have to say that even if I accepted Bill’s premises, there is still a solution to his problem. You do not own the unused air over your property, and cannot prevent others from using it where there is no objective harm to your property. For example, I have no right to prevent airlines from flying over my house, nor to charge them for doing so. Even if the right did lie with Adam, at the shareholder’s meeting I’d propose that (1) we build a catapult and throw the fish over his land; and (2) no fish be sold to Adam until he relents. That would solve the problem quickly one way or another!

But that is just playing with concrete details. The issue is one of principle and the nature of principles. And the whole problem and any variant of it dissolves when that issue is understood.

© 1997, 1998 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.