Interview with Jan Narveson
By Colin Farrelly
Cogito, Vol. 12, No. 2, July 1998, pp. 93-102
Jan Narveson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo where he has been teaching since 1963. He works mainly in moral and political philosophy and his publications include Morality and Utility (1967), The Libertarian Idea (1989), and Moral Matters (1993). He is co-author, with Marilyn Friedman, of Political Correctness- For and Against and co-editor, with John Sanders, of For and Against the State: New Philosophical Readings. He has been Visiting Professor at Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and Calgary. During the Fall term of 1990 he was Visiting Research Scholar at the Centre for Social Philosophy and Policy at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. In 1990 Professor Narveson was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada, this is Canada’s highest recognition of scholarly achievement.
Cogito: Lets start with how you became interested in the issues you have explored. What were the main formative influences that shaped your philosophical views?
Narveson: I guess we would have to divide those into ones stemming from my background and bringing up and then ones internal to academia. I was brought up in a small and, I suppose, conservative community in Minnesota. I am of Norwegian extraction and that community was largely Scandinavian, settled I think in the mid to late nineteenth century. My father was the superintendent of schools in that town it was such a small town that we had a cow as well. My parents were of the Lutheran religion and brought up the family in quite a religious manner though I don’t think any of us has adhered to the faith in detail in the way they would have hoped. When I was in high school I got a scholarship to the University of Chicago which took me to university much earlier than most people do I was only sixteen at the time. While I was there I majored first in political science and then in philosophy. I always had an interest mostly in the social aspects of philosophy rather than the more strictly metaphysical and logical or for that matter epistemological. At Chicago I can’t claim to have been particularly influenced by anybody I guess. I took the usual array of courses there, but the only person I came to know at all well was Alan Gewirth. And he and I have certainly diverged a lot in our social philosophical views, but I have a fair amount of respect for him as a scholar and as a teacher. Then I went to Harvard for graduate school, and there I took ethics from Roderick Firth, who was a fine teacher. Again I didn’t have much use for his views in the end, but I liked his philosophical method. I also liked Henry Aiken, a very interesting and charismatic teacher. My interest in utilitarianism got going about then but it was not inherited from anybody I knew nobody at Harvard or Chicago claimed to be a utilitarian. As much as anything, it seemed to me that the arguments against it weren’t very good. And I wrote my PhD thesis trying to defend it against various criticisms but also to interpret it along lines which, as I realised in retrospect, were more or less libertarian. The project of my thesis was as much as anything to try to reconcile Mill’s essay On Liberty with his utilitarianism. And the view that that could be done in the way I tried to do is one I later came to see just couldn’t work. (Although its very much the same as R.M. Hare’s later efforts, I’ve never been able to get Hare to see the error of his ways after coming to see the errors of mine!) Anyway, I would say that my main influence after my graduate work and my very early academic years was from contact with David Gauthier. In 1974, he held a workshop on contractarian theory at the University of Toronto, where he read a couple of seminal papers, one of which was the background to his book Morals by Agreement. I was very interested by that and I supposed that he must be wrong. But I started thinking about it and I finally decided that he wasn’t wrong I was. I concluded that the general theoretical argument for utilitarianism that I had supplied at the end of my first book (Morality and Utility) just wouldn’t do. But I also couldn’t quite see how David got to where he has on several substantive matters. Then I read Nozick, not long after his book also came out in 1974 and I wrote a big review of it the following year. I was impressed, both by the relative plausibility of his conclusions and the total absence of his premises. So my project, which came to a head in my book called The Libertarian Idea (Temple University Press, 1988), was to argue for libertarianism on contractarian grounds. And I have more or less been at that ever since.
Cogito: What do you think is the central idea behind libertarianism and what are its appeals?
Narveson: Lets distinguish between the central idea of libertarianism (and its essential principle) and then the idea, as you put it, behind it. Now the idea of libertarianism is that each person has a bunch of interests the person would like to pursue. Liberty consists in being not impeded in your pursuit of them, period. It isn’t that I adopt as a matter of definition only the negative sense of the term ‘liberty’, but it is the fundamental core of liberty. Basically liberty is being unimpeded in doing what you want to do. Libertarianism makes liberty into a right: each person has the right to unimpeded action. And the limiting condition on this is only other people’s unimpeded action, period. There aren’t any further things such as somebody’s view of the human good, which can, as such, restrict our interpersonally restrictable actions. The motivation behind libertarianism as I see it is simply our life interests, whatever they are. Libertarianism is essentially a social doctrine. It doesn’t make any sense as a doctrine of how to live, because it doesn’t tell you what to do. All it tells you is to keep out of other people’s way and insist that they keep out of yours, but it doesn’t tell you what your way should be. That’s very much essential to the idea. So in part libertarianism, like contractarianism, is a strictly (as we might say) secular philosophy. It is based on the interests of people, whatever they are, and not any supposed transcendental gimmicks that are suppose to be available to be imported (as it were) from outside of the practical realm as we each see it. But of course we bump into each other and so the question arises, what are the right rules for people’s interaction? Why we need rules is obvious its because of conflict. What makes rules plausible is that if you just go through life by your own values, whatever they are, paying no essential attention to anybody else’s, then you’re likely to get into trouble. Because in all likelihood whatever you want, somebody wants something such that if he gets it then you don’t get want you want, and vice versa. So the question of how to contain these conflicts in the most humanly profitable way seems to me to be a big question that a rational morality must try to answer.
There are several supplementary things that are very important. First, the hypothesis that people are arrayed (in relation to each other) pretty much as a prisoner’s dilemma, rather than some other possible games, is very important. It does seem to me to be quite plausible and the plausibility of it is brought out, I think, by Hobbes’s account. Because, generally speaking, our capacity to make trouble for each other is (a) very great and (b) fairly constant in the sense that everybody has a considerable capacity along these lines. As Hobbes says even the weakest have strength enough to kill the strongest and that’s a fundamental rough equality in this area that I think is tremendously important. Now if we mutually forgo our ability to make life miserable for the other person then the question is is what’s left such as to be expected to be really better then the condition in which we would be just fighting most of the time? And it seems to me very obvious that the answer is yes. But that is certainly an assumption: that almost anybody’s utility function is such that for that person, in relation to almost anybody else, peace is better than war. And that is certainly a value claim in the sense that it is a claim about the typical value profile of typical people. It seems to me to be enormously plausible but is not logically self evident.
Cogito: Would you say more about that?
Narveson: Yes- I take the study of war as quite interesting. I think there are people who get off on war, who like to fight in one way or another. And we have got to distinguish between people who want to justify a war as a means of promoting some other identifiable good, such as wealth, on the one hand, and people who justify a war for its own sake as being a glorious self fulfilling kind of human activity etc. It seems to me that the course of modern life especially has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the first view about war is just wrong. You can’t gain anything worth having by fighting a war, unless war itself is worth having. Otherwise, no matter what the object is you can do better by free exchange.
Those who think that war for its own sake is a good thing are important. Those people, however, have to make another utility calculation, to determine whether what they have to lose from war (which is generally a lot) really is outweighed by what they have to gain from it. And I think we can say a couple of things to those people. First is that luckily there are not very many people like that and the thing for the rest of us to do is kill them take them up on it and get rid of them. I say that in a spirit of explaining to them what they have to be thinking about if they want to get into this business. And that seems to me to be a very strong argument. And the other thing to say to them is ‘Look, why don’t you take up hockey?’ Hockey and lots of other competitive sports are wonderful outlets for aggression, but they contain it so that the people who lose still come out of it better off than if they had not played, and they are alive to try it again next Saturday. I think that sports are a very useful human invention especially for that purpose and I think increasingly so in modern life. What we have to do is find good ways of fighting that are not going to get us the obvious disutilities of actual outright warfare.
Cogito: Libertarian views are most often contrasted with more egalitarian views. What are your main objections to the latter?
Narveson: Almost all contemporary social philosophers are pretty much welfare staters at one level or another. They think the state should be doing all kinds of stuff promoting education, health, and welfare conceived in fairly crudely economic terms. Now the first thing to point out about this is that proposing to have the state do these things commits the defender of the welfare state to the view that the state can do those things, and that it can do them better than the free market. Lots of free marketers, including myself, would be inclined to deny that. Our view is that in fact state intervention, even in the welfare arena, makes people worse off not better off. That’s of course a claim with some empirical commitments and one of the reasons that social philosophers now days simply can’t stay in their armchairs is that its so obvious that the issues we are talking about have large empirical components. You just can’t ignore those and I think they largely have been ignored. I think people have committed the fallacy of saying ‘if such and such is a good end then a state program which is designed to promote that end must be a good program’. It doesn’t follow. A premise is required, to the effect that the state can actually achieve that end and can achieve it without the sacrifice of too many other values. I would deny both of those things. The second one of course we automatically deny outright because the state can’t do anything without trampling on somebody. What people I think tend to forget is that the state isn’t an originator of anything positive. The only way the state can get its money is by taking it from other people who don’t want to give it to them. Taxation is what defines the state and taxation is always against the interest of the person being taxed, prima facie. Now, the claim is that not only do you get your money’s worth, but also that you get it in such a way that it justifies taking it from people, involuntarily. I would want to deny both of those things. I want to claim that the ways that government can spend money are such that it isn’t going to get its money’s worth probably ever, certainly hardly ever. Secondly I would want to claim that the very fact that the money has to be taken from somebody involuntarily is what strongly suggests the truth of the first premise: if it was a good idea to spend your money on such and such, then why wouldn’t you spend it on such and such yourself, if you had your choice?
Now at this point we come up against public goods type problems and issues and those certainly are, I think, the most fundamental theoretical issues in the field today. They are dominated by a syndrome which has been demonstrated to be wrong: namely, that if you’ve got a public goods program then you need the state to solve it. There is a sentence to that effect in as many words in Bob Goodin’s book Reasons for Welfare. But that is demonstrably wrong. Moreover, its very clear that the state always has a down side. You try to solve a problem by putting a bunch of power into someone’s hands and that power is the power to make a lot of people do what they don’t want to do in order to get what you want done. In order for him to act like this he’s got to have quite a lot of authority. Question will he stay within the bounds of that authority and only do what he is supposed to do? Answer not likely! The tendency of people with power to overreach the bounds of their power is very well documented and continues rampant to the present day. For example, there is not a single regulatory agency that doesn’t regulate a whole bunch of things that shouldn’t be regulated and which it is demonstrably counter productive to regulate. That’s another large empirical claim but I think it can be amply born out by even a fairly cursory look at the facts. So, my claim is that public goods issues do not automatically underwrite the state and in fact that, looked at more carefully, they tend to undermine the state because they are tend to show why state activity is usually counter productive.
Cogito: Let me try to pursue a couple of those points, anticipating how a critic from the left would want to respond to a lot of what you have said. First, I think someone like John Rawls would argue, in trying to balance equality with liberty, that economic inequalities can undermine people’s freedom. Secondly, some socialists who take issue with private property would argue that you say you care about liberty but when you institute private property you restrict people’s liberty. Where we can walk, fish, etc. is limited. And thirdly, that the free market economy has problems with things like the environment and a lot of those issues.
Narveson: Those are all things I am very interested in and I have written quite a lot about. The most fundamental of those really does involve digging in your heels about liberty. The claim that economic “deprivation” can undermine liberty has to be taken in a very special sense. For the poor, like the rich, are indeed free to do things and nobody, including the rich, can do any of the things to the poor that we claim nobody can do to anybody kill them, for instance. Nobody is allowed to steal from or injure or enslave the poor any more than they are allowed to do such things to the rich. Our view is that rights are absolutely symmetrical.
Now its perfectly true that people who don’t have much in the way of means can’t do very many things. And if liberty consisted in the ability to do a certain specific number of things, then the case would be closed against the libertarian because of course our view doesn’t make any guarantee about this.
On the other hand we also claim that the free market will leave everybody, including the poor, better off than any attempts to improve their situation by state intervention. That’s another large claim but it is an important supplementary thing. But on the score of fundamental rights I would want to say well, the fact that A is poorer doesn’t give him any more rights against B then B has against A. And what both of them have a fundamental duty to do is refrain from interfering with each other. Now the claim that you interfere with somebody by not paying them very much is an important kind of claim. But it is an uphill battle to support it, for logically, on the face of it, it’s just false. It’s wrong to claim that I interfere with you by not doing very much for you. Here we have the classic example of the good Samaritan parable. There is a man lying in a ditch; somebody else has beaten him up and left him to die. Then you walk by on the road. If you walk right on by, have you done him any kind of harm? My answer is No. You haven’t done anything to help, but you haven’t made him any worse off than he would be anyway. If, for example, you had been in Australia, instead of walking right by, your effect on him would have been exactly the same; namely, nothing. Now it’s also a fact that most people will help other people under those circumstances and a supplementary part of my views that I suppose I could say haven’t got much attention (but that’s trivial, since very few people’s views on anything get much attention nowadays) is on what you might call liberal virtues. I do think that charity is a virtue. Helping people in most circumstances we encounter is clearly a good thing to do. And I’m quite willing to classify it as a moral but non enforceable duty. So, in my view the question is whether there is any plausible fundamental moral principle that says you can override so and so’s liberty in order to force him to render assistance to some other person? And I’m inclined to say that the answer to that question is also No.
Many people think that equality is some kind of an important value in this area. But of course they mean equality in the sense of equalising people with respect to some variable or other. But then the question is are there any variables such that there’s any way you can actually make a good argument for this? In some papers that I haven’t published yet I have explored, as far as I know, all the actual arguments I can find in the literature, starting with that of Rawls and none of them are any good! The view that there is an actual argument for egalitarianism I think is just not on. Egalitarians are preaching from gut instinct, period. And there are all sorts of arguments against egalitarianism. As soon as you allow argument into the area then the case for forcing egalitarianism on people becomes, I think, really zero. It flies especially in the face of the Pareto principle, which says that if somebody can be made better off without making anybody else worse off, then that’s fine, and you should at the least be allowed to do it. But that is a view that the egalitarian can’t stomach because that’s obviously going to make people unequal. So, on the one hand there is the question of motivating the opposite view and I haven’t been able to see that there is a motivation for it. Now footnote there’s a qualification to this because I think there is a very good argument for everybody accepting a very modest duty of mutual aid. But it’s not Rawlsian rather, it’s basically just another game theoretical argument. If I can do you a lot of good by doing something that costs me very little, and it’s something that is typical of the human situation it could happen to anybody then it seems to me that I and everyone stand to gain from operating on a policy of helpfulness. If we are all disposed to be helpful we’ll all do better than if we aren’t. But that’s got severe limits. How much of what I have got do I owe to my random fellow man to help him? It can’t be very much. For example, if I am in India where everybody (like 99% of the people) are below the Canadian poverty line: If I have an obligation to help the poor, in any robust sense, then obviously it’s going to make me poor myself and that I think doesn’t make any sense in lots of ways.
Let’s see… what was the next point?
Cogito: I had mentioned property and the environment.
Narveson: That’s right. Property rights are of great interest to me of course. Most of the people who discuss property start by positively dashing off in the other direction when presented with a request for a definition. It seems to me that the notion of property is clear enough. To say that X is yours or belongs to you is simply to say that you have got the right to do what you want with it, period. A property is a kind of locus of freedom in that sense. You do what you want with it until you start bumping into other people’s rights of course. So the question is what justifies anybody’s have any property at all? My answer to this is it’s the same thing that justifies him in doing, generally, whatever he likes to do. Because property consists in having things which enable you to do various things. We use these things in one way or another. And your reasons for wanting to do these things are yours. The claim that we outsiders get to tell you whether you can have any property or not is exactly the claim that we outsiders get to run your life for you. There are few social philosophers who are ready to accept, just like that, that other people generally have the right to run other people’s lives for them. All at least pay some attention to the notion of individual liberty or freedom. But I want to ask them how they can pay any attention at all to it, given some of their other premises.
It seems to me that property flows naturally from liberty unless you buy into one or another of the familiar alleged restrictions. For example, Locke’s so called Proviso on Acquisition has very much come into its own in contemporary times especially as a result of Nozick’s work, which was interesting but puzzling. The idea that Locke’s principle has real world implications stems from a premise that, firstly, there are things lying around in nature that are good just as they stand, so that if somebody takes something then he’s automatically making life worse for other people because he is automatically depriving them of the opportunity to take it. The trouble with that is that things are only good when you use them not good independently (even aesthetic contemplation is a use). Now Locke in part has the answer to one of the kinds of things people are saying which is that on the premise that everybody has the right to take these things nobody will actually end up using it at all and then we’d all be worse off, much poorer than if people had been able to use them. Now my claim is that in fact we have no reason for objecting to people’s use of things other than in the case where somebody is already using them. Acquisition in a genuine state of nature, where there simply isn’t anybody there yet, seems to me obviously justified. And it’s justified by the Pareto principle. Somebody’s now using it, nobody else is worse off because nobody else is around so you can’t be invading somebody else’s use of it. Then regarding competition for resources, it has been pointed out that in so far as any given item is an item that can be used by people, its use, no matter what kind of use you think it’s going to be, is going to be strictly competitive with other people’s. Therefore with respect to any given item you have a zero sum game. There obviously is no solution to zero sum games. There isn’t any social solution that says when Jones’ loss is Smith’s gain, then Jones should win, or Smith should win, or it should be a draw (which is really a meaningless notion with zero sum games anyway). The idea that there is some fundamental social principle that says ‘lets dole out the land equally because otherwise it’s competitive’ is crazy. The most important point of course is that people’s use of things increases their value it doesn’t decrease them. So when people start using things, newcomers who arrive on a scene where there has already been human development are not worse off, but better off. If you were to have the option of being parachuted from Mars into twentieth century America, as compared with 25 000 B.C. in central Europe, which would you do better in? We can say a priori that you’ll do better in the twentieth century, no matter what you are like. That’s because other people improve things and when they do, they make them available to other people on useful terms. The terms are you do something for me, I do something for you. So the idea that there are any inherent restrictions on the so called ‘distribution of natural property’ seems to me to be just absurd.
Now concerning the environment, I have been making quite a big study of environmental issues over the last twenty years. There is a lot of empirical material that is very important though I think there are again some fundamentals that are not just empirical but are really conceptual. On the empirical front, the first thing to do is to point out that the claims that the world is headed towards this that or the other environmental disaster are all false wild exaggerations of what are in fact local and quite containable tendencies. To take the most spectacular example, consider the question of population and food resources. In the 1960’s and 70’s pundits were claiming that mankind’s population had simply got to be throttled down or there would be massive starvation. These claims have been falsified by experience in the most spectacular way. In fact, in the last thirty years, food resources everywhere (including the poor countries) have increased per capita. They haven’t just increased but inadequately. They have increased per capita. Statistically speaking, in all parts of the world everybody is eating better now than they did thirty years ago, not worse. Secondly, as far as starvation is concerned, all of the important starvation in the twentieth century has been political and none of it has been environmental. There have been occasional floods and what not which have created problems, but those have been strictly local and containable and relatively few people have died as a result of such. The really big ones have been due to the communists in Russia in the 1930’s, when they deliberately starved many millions of people, and in China in the 60’s, where the Maoists agricultural policies did indeed cause severe food shortages. We now know that something like thirty to forty million people starved to death there at the very time when Maoist propaganda was proclaiming that China had at last solved the problem of starvation. But since 1979, when agriculture in China was at last liberalised and they went back to (pretty much) market driven farming, food production increased in China by the spectacular figure of 60% in the next decade. Like every other country, China has no problem feeding itself if you let people grow food and sell it on whatever terms they can get from whoever will buy it.
Cogito: Lets move from your work in political philosophy to ethics. I would like to read a brief quotation from the preface of Moral Matters. You say: ‘Morality, in short, needs to cope with our differences, and a morality for all must support and promote the diverse interests of the agent whose actions it purports to direct. For this reason, the prima facie rule is always that an individual is to be allowed to act as he or she sees fit. To override this freedom, we need good reasons good from the point of view of the agent, the person whose conduct we are asking to alter’. This seems to me to be a rather strong condition. Could you give us an idea of how we could meet this condition? Some agents might simply be irrational or so indoctrinated by a custom or ideology that they simply do not see a good reason when one is given to them.
Narveson: Well, let me divide this into two different things. On the one hand there is the public goods aspect which in a way we have been taking about. I take moral philosophy and political philosophy to be fundamentally the same. I take it that we have been talking about morals in the sense that the reasons for giving people various kinds of rights are of a general sort and so the person whose personal values would bring him into conflict with others is then getting into a public goods problem the solution to which is to back off and acknowledge other people’s rights.
The other point you make is a very important and interesting one. I assume that the general view that everybody is substantially shaped by his or her social environment and culture is true. I take that to be a highly plausible general claim. The question is so what? Now in some few cases, or maybe a fair number of cases, the culture the person has been absorbed in and involved in will have some illiberal beliefs illiberal in the sense that people in that particular culture believe that people can be forced, for example, to accept the local religion or some such thing. Of course we think that in those respects they are wrong. And the view that the individual in that culture may, if he wants to, abandon his religion or do things differently from other people in the culture is one I think to be simply correct. But of course lots of people in it won’t want to do this. They will have been (if you like) successfully brainwashed by their parents and their general interaction with their environment has been such as to leave them positive about the society they live in. And I claim that that’s OK, that we don’t have any basis for intervening to prevent people from living the way they decided they want to live, even if they haven’t chosen it in the sense that, at some point or other, they assembled a bunch of alternatives and said ‘I’ll take this one even though I’m well informed about the virtues of the others’. That view about what people have a fundamental moral right to seems to me to be impossible because, in the first place, in regard to any matter in principle there is almost always an infinite number of alternatives. You can’t hold them all before your mind and make a rational choice among them because you can’t hold them all before your mind. The best you can do is hold a few alternatives to the one you have got. Then of course there is also the matter of knowing these alternatives and that, once you get into how you’re going to run your life, is a problem. I don’t really understand the attraction of taking drugs and I’m not about to find out. I’m sufficiently narrow minded so that I’m just not going to try taking heroin to see what it’s like. Realistically speaking, I’m not going to give a serious run for its money to most alternative ways of life that I can even imagine. (And of course I can’t imagine a lot of them). So the idea that there is something wrong and especially something correctable about my reasoning or pattern of behaviour from the fact that I haven’t chosen my way of life in this manner seems to me to be just crazy. There is no basis for intervening in people’s lives on that kind of ground. All you can do, I think, is seriously maintain the institution of free speech and free association. So if you think that people in this culture or people with that religion are making a mistake you try to argue them out of it. And if they won’t listen then that’s just too bad for you. Of course you think its too bad for them and that may be true, but that’s the end of the matter. If you can’t get them to voluntarily listen to your message then you are just going to have to wait, on my view.
Cogito: Another controversial topic you discuss in Moral Matters is suicide. One of the major objections against the claim that suicide could be a rational or moral option is the belief that human life is intrinsically valuable and hence it’s wrong to voluntarily take your own life. What do you make of this sort of argument?
Narveson: Well, I don’t accept it. Firstly, lets take the claim that something is intrinsically valuable, well, what claim is that? If it’s the claim that it’s valuable even though you don’t think so and even though you don’t think so after having been fully exposed to the features of the things in question, well, where do you go next? And of course the trouble is, you go nowhere. The view that something is intrinsically valuable is literally undicussable either you see it or you don’t. And in the case of people and their view about other people, it’s pretty obvious that they don’t see them to be intrinsically valuable, generally speaking. It would be better to say that most have a certain residue of sympathy for other people, which I think is quite true. And in favourable social circumstances this is promoted. Most of us have a lot more than that (the very minimum attitude toward other people). But the view that people are literally intrinsically valuable seems to me to be just not plausible. That people are extrinsically valuable, that is, that everybody is potentially useful to everybody else, does seem to me to be true and far more important than the view that they are intrinsically valuable. However, that changes the scene in a very important way. Take my own life my body for example. I don’t think it’s sacred. But it certainly is (for the most part) useful. It enables me to do all sorts of interesting things. But then, when the time comes that it doesn’t enable me to do those things and instead gets in the way, or just hurts, we have the question what to do next. And that’s where the option of committing suicide becomes important. If at some point the individual can plausibly take the view that the future is going to be simply intolerable, then to deprive him of the right to take that drastic action seems to me to be quite wrong. So I don’t think it is natural to think one’s own self is (in the relevant sense) intrinsically valuable any more than the view that other people are. On the other hand of course most of us want to live and that’s a totally understandable natural tendency. So somebody who is (as we say) ‘driven to suicide’ must be in tough shape. We, in many cases, can help out. And I think we should. It would be a good thing to do that because I’m sure that many attempted suicides are demonstrably mistaken. In the sense that from the perspective of the individual in question his view that things are so intolerable is actually shown to be wrong. He tries and fails and then a few months later he’s fairly happy again and lives a reasonably good life thereafter. That career would demonstrate empirically that this person would have made a mistake, I think, to commit suicide at that point. And I think that’s probably true of most attempted suicides, at least among sort of youngish people. On the other hand when we get to the cases which are like self applied euthanasia it’s not at all obvious that they are making a mistake at all, let alone a serious mistake. It’s frequently the case that they’re acting perfectly rationally. They have had plenty of time to think about it, they know what the medical facts are and have no reason for thinking that their situation can be improved, and their life is just absolutely miserable. It seems to me plausible for such a person to contemplate suicide. Whether I would do it myself I simply don’t know. However, I think I have empirical evidence that I might because both of my parents (they lived to be over ninety) were taken to hospital, hated the environment there and actually, in the end, refused treatment and died as a result. That’s pretty much like committing suicide, but it seems to me that they were acting perfectly rational. Neither of them were operating on false premises at all. I sympathise with them, I think they acted reasonably and I think to not allow people to do that is crazy.
Cogito: You have also tackled the issue of criminal punishment. Do you have any views on whether or not you favour capital punishment?
Narveson: Yes I do have such views. In the first place I think its perfectly clear that people can deserve capital punishment. I don’t have any question at all that in some cases justice would be served by capitally punishing certain people. However, the question ‘should we have capital punishment?’ is unfortunately not answered by just answering the first question, because in society what we have is a public institution of punishment with all we know about that. Canada is a sort of walking case history for why capital punishment is probably a mistake. In Canada (over the years) we have had many people convicted of murder who have been subsequently definitively found not to be guilty. And there have been lots of these. Capital punishment went under in Canada back in the early 1960’s. I arrived here in 1963 from the U.S. and a case was being discussed during those years that of Steven Trescott, a fourteen year old at the time of the event which was the murder of a 12 year old girl. They found Steven’s bicycle near the scene and he was convicted entirely on circumstantial evidence. I don’t see how any reasonable person could look at the evidence as it was presented to the court, never mind the new evidence later, how anybody could think that was enough to convict beats me. It seems to me to be just irrational. But the point is the jury system puts your life into the hands of twelve ordinary people. And what are those people going to do? Well, if they are scared they will want to get somebody. They are scared and want to get a conviction they think they are protecting the public by convicting somebody. It’s virtually ‘who cares whether he’s guilty lets convict somebody and punish him’. The public system is a sitting duck for for that sort of thing. And it is (realistically speaking) going to get the wrong people every now and then. There’s just no two ways about this. So it comes to a question of how important is it from the public point of view that murderers actually be executed as opposed to being taken care of in some other way. There is of course the problem in the recent times that sentences for murder have been too light. In fact, in the United States the penalties for taking drugs are often more serious than the penalties for murder. (Which is, I think, one more testimony to the decline of that country.) But, well of course if you put a psychopath in jail for murder, and you let him out after five years, that’s likely to be a bad thing. And if he was really guilty it might have been better to execute him just from that point. As I say I don’t have any questions about possibly deserving capital punishment. That seems to me to just not be a problem. But the point is applying capital punishment in our circumstances is quite another matter. So I’m rather sympathetic with the Canadian view. We just don’t have capital punishment here. But the reason for the erosion of capital punishment in Canada was simply a growing public awareness that there are just too many cases like Steven Truscott’s and that it’s a very dangerous (and, so far as public protection is concerned, unnecessary) institution. I think that’s a very strong argument, but it is a practical one. And it’s variable I can certainly conceive of circumstances in which, even taking account of its risks, you’re better off with it than without it. It’s just that we aren’t in those circumstances. We can afford not to have capital punishment and I think we probably shouldn’t.
Cogito: What do you think is the best justification for punishing criminals? Is it revenge? Deterrence? To protect the public?
Narveson: I have been moving in the last twenty years in the direction of the view that punishment basically is a mistake. It’s a mistake because we should take the view that crime consists in visiting an evil on somebody or other, and so the first order of business is that the criminal owes the victim and/or the family and friends of the victim something. He owes them something, not the State. Restitution, I think, should be the fundamental institutional reaction to crime, and not punishment as such. I think you can justify punishment on ‘deterrence protection’ grounds as I call it. I hyphenate those because too many people think of DETERRENCE (in big letters) and not of protection (in little letters or none at all). But punishment, if it is justified, is not justified because of deterrence in particular but more broadly because of protecting the public from wrongful activity. When you incarcerate somebody, even if incarcerating them doesn’t deter anybody else, it at least reduces the danger to the public from that person while he is in jail. And that’s obviously a lot that’s pretty important. If a serial rapist or a serial killer is in jail then there are people out there who are going to be alive who wouldn’t otherwise be alive. So there is an obvious reason for incapacitating criminals, from the public point of view.
But deterrence is no small thing either. In fact, the punishment system is essentially a system of deterrence in the following sense. It’s a system which says to everybody ‘if you do the following things here’s what we’re going to do to you so you’d better not!’. Now deterrence has been widely dumped on in recent times as ineffectual; but the reason for that is the inefficiency of the police system. Deterrence will work only if the criminal believes that he’s likely to get caught. But in many cities around North America (and elsewhere), that belief is practically irrational: if you are any good at it you won’t be caught (in all likelihood). That makes big statements about the inefficiency of public police forces, but it doesn’t say anything about the principle of deterrence because deterrence is a function of probability of apprehension and the severity of punishment, weighed against the utility to you of committing the crime. If the probability is small enough, it doesn’t matter what the punishment is. And that’s why capital punishment didn’t work. Professional criminals knew that the probability of their actually being executed was zero. So of course it didn’t deter any of them. And ordinary people who got angry and murdered somebody weren’t deterred because they never thought in terms of what would probably happen to them. You can’t deter the first class so long as you have an inefficient police system. One advantage of my anarchic system is that we wouldn’t have a public police system and the Mafia would have to worry about an agency that was just like the Mafia in point of efficiency. but were working for honest people.
Cogito: I just want to pick up on a point that touches on an issue you discussed earlier with respect to rights. Many people are passionate about the treatment of animals and speak of animal rights. On your view, can the state legitimately violate a person’s freedom to be cruel to animals?
Narveson: I admit to being of mixed minds about this. I do rather suspect that cruelty to animals tends to go with cruelty to people, but that’s a bit of an evasion. In general, though, no: I don’t think the state may legislate cruelty to animals. I do think such cruelty is rather sick, and don’t quite understand why it is done when it is done. But I think it’s up to animal lovers to talk the others out of such practices, and not for the law to prevent them.
Cogito: We often close these interviews by asking our interviewee about what they like to do when they are not doing philosophy. So what other interests or hobbies do you have?
Narveson: My major passion in life apart from philosophy (and my friends) is (classical) music. I am the founder, continuing president, and general all round workhorse for the Kitchener Waterloo Chamber Music Society. We put on a whole lot of chamber music concerts in a year fifty or more, in fact, almost all of which are held in my house, which has a large room at the back and a Steinway. I also have a very large collection of recordings: LP’s, CD’s, and cassettes perhaps nine or ten thousand items, I guess. I also attend a great many concerts besides the ones in my house, and write a weekly column reviewing and discussing concert activity here for our university newspaper, the University of Waterloo Gazette. I don’t play any instrument myself (and was never accomplished when I did, long ago) I just listen to other people play and arrange that they can play. I suppose that the time I spend at my musical activities is just about equal to that spent at philosophy.
I have one eccentricity to mention: for about thirty years now I have worn a western type black hat when I go outside. It shades my eyes, which prevents the headaches I used to get when I went out in daytime but it also identifies me in crowds to my friends.