Mar 16, 2009

LD mailbag: the vigilante and the social contract

A reader writes,
I was hoping to run an Aff with Justice as the Value and Locke's Social Contract as the Criterion.

Upon researching a bit more, however, it does become clear that Locke would have been against vigilantes. Is there a way to modify Locke or simply use a generic 'social contract' criterion on the Aff side without getting rocked?
As I (and others) have mentioned elsewhere, classical approaches to the social contract are difficult for the affirmative. Locke disapproves. Hobbes wouldn't countenance it. Rousseau is anyone's guess.

Does that mean the Affirmative has no place to go?

Not quite.

Often in LD debate, competitors name-drop any of the Big Three without fully understanding the nuances in their positions. While this might make them seem well-researched, it can backfire, as a better-informed opponent can point out weaknesses in that philosopher's theory of the contract--or a judge, familiar with the philosopher, will set teeth on edge when hearing his work mangled.

This doesn't have to happen. Why use any of these particular theories when a more generic perspective will suffice? And why rely on crusty dead guys for your contractual logic? This is the beauty of LD: you are allowed to state your own premises and draw your own conclusions. A good argument is a good argument no matter who says it, and anyone who says otherwise is walking head-on into a trap called ad hominem.

For inspiration on the general theory underlying Social Contract thought, a good place to head is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which distinguishes two major strains: contractarianism and contractualism.
Contractarianism, which stems from the Hobbesian line of social contract thought, holds that persons are primarily self-interested, and that a rational assessment of the best strategy for attaining the maximization of their self-interest will lead them to act morally (where the moral norms are determined by the maximization of joint interest) and to consent to governmental authority. Contractarianism argues that we each are motivated to accept morality, as Jan Narveson puts it, "first because we are vulnerable to the depredations of others, and second because we can all benefit from cooperation with others" (1988, 148). Contractualism, which stems from the Kantian line of social contract thought, holds that rationality requires that we respect persons, which in turn requires that moral principles be such that they can be justified to each person. Thus, individuals are not taken to be motivated by self-interest but rather by a commitment to publicly justify the standards of morality to which each will be held. Where Gauthier, Narveson, or economist James Buchanan are the paradigm Hobbesian contractarians, Rawls or Thomas Scanlon would be the paradigm Kantian contractualists.
Once you've chosen your foundation, you'll have to set about showing why the Social Contract produces a legitimate government (or achieves justice or social stability or welfare or whatever your value is), why the government's failure to enforce the law is interpreted as a breakdown in the Contract, and why the vigilante is therefore justified in taking the law into her own hands. It will probably take you a couple pages to hash everything out--and when you're done, you'll have a completed Affirmative case.

A few things to watch out for: a savvy Neg may argue that the law is not The Contract--which is technically true. You might want to pre-empt this by arguing that it doesn't matter; failure to enforce the law perpetuates social disorder, and is a widespread failure of the government to uphold its end of the bargain. Vigilantism, then, is justified for either of two reasons: for the same reason revolution is justified, or for propping up the State.

Also, a great way to get the Negative to agree to the Contract as a valid criterion for justice (if that's your value--which might be a good idea) is to ask a great CX question: What gives the State the right to punish criminals? Chances are their answer will dovetail nicely with your contractarian / contractualist view. If not, you can hammer 'em in your 1AR for failing to warrant the State's legitimacy versus that of the vigilante.

Last, a deontoloigcally-minded Affirmative might be on more solid ground, simply because the bar for justification is set a little lower. We don't have to argue that vigilantism is smart or best for society, only that it's justified. To the deontologist, that means, quite simply, that it's morally right. End of story.


Sexy Beast said...

Jim, I'm gana have to disagree with Locke disproving vigilantes: At least, not within the context of the resolution.

Locke says "When the law fails or is oppressive, the society may revert back into the state of nature. In the state of nature, a man may kill a thief, who has not harmed him in any way, because men in the state of nature are to be the judges in there own cases."

The last sentence might be off, so don't hold it against me. But I've been (rather succesfully) using Locke with a value of Social Justice on the affirmative, essectially arguing because the resolution talks about when the law has failed to be enforced, Locke supports vigilantism.

It's not infallible, as the neg can always argue that the law hasn't failed in all instances, but it seems to be a feasible avenue.

Jim Anderson said...

You're missing the rest of the passage, where Locke concedes to the objection that " is unreasonable for Men to be Judges in their own Cases, that Self-love will make men partial to themselves and to their Friends. And on the other side, that Ill Nature, Passion and Revenge will carry them too far in punishing others. And hence nothing but Confusion and Disorder will follow.... I easily grant, that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniencies of the state of nature, which must certainly be great, where men may be judges in their own case, since it is easy to be imagined, that he who was so unjust as to do his brother an injury, will scarce be so just as to condemn himself for it..." Left in the state of nature, the vigilante is without accountability; no vigilante will punish himself, Locke argues, for committing injustice in the name of upholding the law. The proper recourse to state failure is the creation of another legitimate state. Locke is no friend of vigilantism.

Sexy Beast said...


India Opal said...

My very personally negative coach is arguing that the social contract is made saying that the government will do its very best to apprehend and punish criminals, for what can they guarantee but their best efforts? All I can say to this is that then societies would be forced to act in an supposedly "unjustified" revolutions to protect their rights from unpunished acts resulting from a weak government, and that we don't know who will monitor the government's maintennance. Is there a better way to say this? And if not, how will you draw the line between such governments and the modern ones we have today? The US (according to the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice) caught 487 per 1000 murderers for murders committed in 1994. Does that mean they are violating the social contract/failing to enforce the law? What does this mean, in the big picture?


Eutopia1994 said...

Hi Jim,

Your last bit about justified vs just/"smart, best for society" threw me off a bit-seeing that what is "justified" is "permissible and allowable", shouldn't only JUST (therefore best for society) matters be "permissible and allowable"? I mean seeing LD putting such an emphasis on morals, I thought that by natural law and/or basic morality/ethics, things that aren't just shouldn't be justified.

Jim Anderson said...

Eutopia, to a deontologist, considerations of societal welfare or other "good consequences" are not of concern when considering the rightness of an action. Only duty (and that only coming from right reason and universalizable maxims, to the Kantians) matters. Kant, for example, argues that if you were one of only two humans left on earth, and the other survivor were a murderer who escaped prison, you'd have a moral obligation to punish (for Kant, execute) the criminal, even though all of society had collapsed around you.

Eutopia1994 said...

But Jim, where is the deontologists' "duty" coming from? What do they need to be dutiful to? As you said, Kant's maxims, etc, are based on "moral obligations" wouldn't it be moral to promote what is just?

Jim Anderson said...

Eutopia, I'd suggest reading up on Kant. The short answer is "rational, universalizable moral norms," but when it comes to ethics, there are no short answers.

Anonymous said...

So, a value criterion of the Social Contract would still work, right?

Anonymous said...

I mean a contention, not a criterion.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Mr. Jim can you explain the concept of Will to power for me. Initially I thought it was the struggle against one's surrounding for dominance. However, I don't get how this applies to the resolution.

Andrew said...

I apologize, i don't know how long these comments have been sitting here, but i agree with the intial argument by Sexy Beast.

You say, "I easily grant, that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniencies of the state of nature," While this may be true, go back to the resolution where it says that the government has failed meaning that the "civil government" in reality is not doing anything. Thats what the context of the resolution (or at least how i frame it) shows. Meaning that this quote by Locke, "Where there is no longer the administration of justice for the securing of men's rights, nor any remaining power within the community to direct the force, or provide for the necessities of the public, there certainly is no government left." Which shows that unless we allow vigilanties to act in defense of law and the community, government is gone, and we revert back to the hobbesian state of nature. In order to preserve order and justice in the face of the resolution when the government has failed to enforce the law, the community (or the vigilanties) are justified in acting. (A lot of this reasoning also come from my definition of vigilante) These are just the ideas that i have been running and will run at state this weekend.

Btw: Never posted before but I enjoy the blog. Its been a great help and helps me brainstorm ideas. Thank you for putting it up and providing a resource these last few years.