Walter Block Responds to Tricky Libertarian Question

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From time to time I get questions on libertarianism and Austrianism. I thought I’d share this one, along with my answer. Here goes:

From: Neil
Sent: Friday, November 19, 2010 12:50 PM
Subject: Ethics Question

Hi Dr. Block,

My name is Neil and I met you back in 2004 at Mises U.  I was wondering if you could help me with an ethics question that I have been dealing with. Recently, Jeffrey Tucker posted the following article on the Mises Blog.

In short, it describes an individual who makes a living writing papers for students in exchange for money.  The students, after purchasing these papers, submit them in their name and take credit for the work.  These papers may be short papers or entire dissertations.

I find the act of submitting a paper that you did not write as your own work to be immoral if it violates a contract you have with a university that states that the material you submit must be your own work.

However, did the person who wrote the paper in exchange for money commit an immoral act?  Let’s assume that the writer knew that the student who was purchasing this paper had a history of turning in papers that were not his own, and let us assume that it is practically assured that this paper too would be turned in fraudulently.

At first I thought the writer was on solid moral grounds because he was not actually committing the fraud.  He solely was participating in a voluntary transaction.  But then, one of my friends said, “Well, if you sell a gun to someone who is a known killer who said he needed the gun to kill someone (but not out of self-defense), is it moral to make the sale?” That got me thinking.

Can you point me to an article that could solve a question such as this or take a minute to give me your response?  I’m sure you get tons of emails like this, but I was very curious what a “Blockian” response would be.

Thank you,

My response:

Dear Neil:

In my opinion, if the person who cooperates with the bad guy (murderer or plagiarist) KNOWS that the person he is dealing with is a criminal, then, he, too, is guilty of some sort of lawlessness. Mens rea, guilty intention, is crucial in holding someone responsible for aiding and abetting a criminal. The guy who drives the getaway car for the criminal gang is himself, also, a criminal, even though he does nothing per se illicit, he just drives. On the other hand, the taxi driver who unwittingly drives the criminal gang away from the scene of their crime is an innocent person, as innocent as the person who sold the criminals breakfast or shoes, without which, also, they would not have been able to perpetrate their crime.

I’d like to blog this. Is that ok with you? If I use your name? If I make you anonymous?

Best regards,
Feel free to use my name—just my first name, however.  I’d be honored!

2:07 pm on November 19, 2010