Prudent Predators, Sensible Knaves, and Fooles

Several years ago, debate raged on several Objectivist discussion lists about the the problem of the “prudent predator.” The problem, simply put, is this: Why should a rational egoist accept constraints on her self-interested behavior, such as respecting others’ rights, if it is advantageous to throw them off in a particular case? The prudent predator accepts that the system of constraints is beneficial, given that others reliably accept them, but sees no reason not to “defect” from the pattern of general compliance when it pays.

It would have been to my immense benefit at the time of those debates had I read Hobbes’ account of the Foole in Leviathan, and Hume’s account of the conditions of justice and the Sensible Knave in the Enquiry. I’m making a study of compliance problems in contractarian moral theory this semester, and I’m astonished to see that all the moves that I tried to make in the Objectivist debates were anticipated by Hobbes and Hume. Of particular interest is Hume’s analysis of the conditions under which we are obliged to practice the virtue of justice, which he conceives as respecting a system of several property. I had argued that the logic of Objectivist egoism is such that respect for rights is required only when there is a social order under which interaction to mutual advantage is possible. Although Hume is no egoist (his moral theory is based in moral sentiment), he justifies his theory of justice on grounds of self-interest. And Hume says exactly what I had said, and more. In conditions of scarcity, war, or in other systematically predatory social conditions, the practice of justice (the respect for rights to property) has no foundation. A consequence of this view is that rights to property cannot be conceived to exist prior to the solution of the problem of scarcity, and the existence of cooperative norms. In which case a puzzle arises: scarcity is solved by markets. But markets require stable property rights. So how do we get to either?

Good question! More later!