This post at Cato Unbound by Michael Huemer is nuts. Let’s say that there are only two achievable options: (a) implement a basic minimum income or (b) forebear from implementing a basic minimum income, with the consequence that the status quo is preserved. Let’s also say — as Huemer allows us to say — that implementing a basic minimum income is a better option than preserving the status quo. Finally, let’s say (Huemer’s claim) that it is ethically impermissible to implement a basic minimum income. What is one to do? I guess under these assumptions one is required to forebear from implementing a basic minimum income even though the result is that a morally worse state of affairs will obtain. I don’t pretend that this criticism is original, but that’s just crazy.
I recognize there are some people out there who will bite the bullet and say rights, rights — we must sometimes accept a morally worse state of affairs for the sake of rights. But think about what you’re saying: you’re saying that we must accept a state of affairs that’s worse — so, if all you care about is rights, that’s a state of affairs in which more rights are violated overall — because of rights. I know the response: but that’s just what rights are — they are side-constraints, conversation-stoppers, they preclude you from acting no matter the consequences. Which to my mind is just to underscore the point we ended with last paragraph: it’s completely nuts to believe in rights thusly understood.
Of course there are also more recherché objections to the deontological logic underlying Huemer’s position that have been tried from time-to-time, such as arguing that there is no such thing as the action / inaction distinction because (roughly) you act whenever you make a decision (including to forebear from taking a particular course) and thereby bring about consequences. Thus, given that it is possible that by forbearing from implementing a basic minimum income you act in a way that could violate others’ rights (cause them to be violated), that is also impermissible by Huemerous deontological logic, so Huemer’s position must be that it is, at least, possible that you be forbidden from both acting and forbearing from acting, which simply cannot be right: ethics fails to satisfy the conceptual requirement that it provide practical guidance whenever it tells you don’t do anything but don’t not do anything either. This argument trades on too many controversial conceptual analyses and otherwise reeks of chicanery. It is, in any event, beside the key point, which is that the whole idea that you might not be permitted to implement a better state of affairs over a worse state of affairs is insane.