Playing Games in the Street – Free Rider! Jamming, 01/08/2018

Funny little things crop up in the small margins of a book worth reading. Distilling the core arguments of a 300-page book and juxtaposing some critical perspectives in about 3000 words, you lose some details.

Which is why I like to revisit some of those discarded but interesting points on the blog.

One of those casual moments is Sassower’s critique of the free-rider problem, which amounts to a flippant rebuke. At that moment, I cackled.

As someone who was educated for the academy in a philosophy department, such a thing is blasphemy. The Free-Rider Problem is a central example in Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, and has gone on to become a standard model for pumping intuitions to understand moral truths.

Now that's a fare inspector who takes his job to heart.
Okay, after writing that paragraph, I’m cackling again.

See, the method of pumping hypothetical or artificial scenarios to intuit universal moral principles or foundations is utterly barmy. It presumes that every person is going to think morally in the same way you do. And that’s just not the case.

Maybe Kantian morality conforms to the intuitions of a lot of people raised in an Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. Maybe Kant derived the principles that his philosophical reasoning justified from the mainstream culture of his time. Maybe Kant’s work was so influential that it affected the popular moral development of European and broader Western culture.

It was probably a combination of all three. But the problem with the Free Rider Problem is that it just isn’t necessarily true that it describes a problem, just because some folks who uncritically absorb individualist Christian-influenced morality or work as Kantian moral philosophers say it is.

So what is it? Someone rides a public bus without paying for a ticket.

Dear God, the terror!

Seriously, though. Analysis of the Free Rider Problem takes up a lot of space in Western moral philosophy, especially in the academy. Conceptual problems like this are a gold mine for academic philosophers – you can change your take only slightly to generate a new article for the paywalled journals with little effort, but great reward. See also, the Trolley Problem, the Gettier Case, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

The best buses are the ones for freedom.
The intuitive outrage at the centre of the Free Rider Problem is what you should do with the cheater on the system. As someone who benefits from a common good without directly contributing to it, he’s conceived as a cheater of the system.

A common conclusion to the Free Rider Problem is that only those who can themselves directly contribute to public goods have the right to make use of them. That sounds very fair in the abstract, but in real life, that results in actions that sound morally upright, but are in fact terribly destructive.

So if someone is too destitute to contribute directly to the upkeep of the public good, the typical conclusion to the Free Rider Problem is to deny them the right to use the system. Throw the homeless woman off the bus, even if she’s on his way to an interview about a housing opportunity. She didn’t pay her $3.25.

There’s a mainstream approach to morality that puts all evaluation of praise and blame on the isolated act of an isolated individual. Did you steal that food? Did he skip that line? Did she kill that man?

As for the approach to communitarian moral thinking that Sassower articulates when he wonders if Free Riding is even a problem? It’s empirical – you examine the situation, history, and network of causes that constitute that entire situation. It’s dynamic – you take account of how wider situations and institutions constrain and liberate potential actions.

You were hungry. Everyone was skipping the line. She was 14 years old and that man was sexually assaulting her in their house. Culpability never rests with one.

Not every $3.25 is worth a life.

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