Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Four Square

Debates about Freedom are necessarily religious debates Edward Fesser is my kind of Libertarian. He started as a Libertarian but as he got older (and wiser) he began to question some Libertarians strands of thought, to the point that he concluded he had nothing to loose by admitting that he was, in fact, a conservative. A series of articles trace his thinking on this issue, which I find fascinating as it closely mirrors my own. In The Trouble with Libertarianism, Fesser begins by correctly diagnosing the claims Rawlsian liberalism makes for itself:
Libertarians have objected that the details of Rawls's theory so incorporate his social and economic egalitarianism into what he counts as "reasonable" that his claim to neutrality between actually existing worldviews is disingenuous; for Rawlsians are ultimately prepared to apply that honorific only to those comprehensive doctrines compatible with an extensive regime of anti-discrimination laws, forced income redistribution, and whatever other consequences are taken to follow from Rawls's famous "difference principle" (which holds that no inequalities can be permitted in a just society unless they benefit its least well-off members). The "comprehensive doctrines" of moral traditionalists and individualist free spirits alike, doctrines having millions of adherents, end up being effectively written off as "unreasonable" from the egalitarian liberal point of view. Libertarianism is truly neutral where Rawls and other liberals only pretend to be.
Fesser has just outlined my starting point, when I left university and first began to think about how humans interact in the world (politics, in other words). He then sketches out a few libertarian thinkers - Locke, Hayek, Nozick and Rand, to show how the basis of property rights - from which human rights historically derive - becomes thinner and less satisfactory as it moves away from Locke. Locke derived property rights in a way that would shock some libertarians today. It sounds remarkably like simple Burkean conservatism:
But what grounds the right of self-ownership itself? The answer, according to Locke, was that it derives from God. How? God, being the creator of everything that exists other than Himself - including us - is the ultimate owner of everything that exists - including us. Therefore, when a person harms another person by killing him, stealing from him, and so forth, he in effect violates the rights of God, because he damages what is God's property. To respect God's rights over us, therefore, we must recognize our duty not to kill, harm, or steal from each other, which entails treating each other as having certain rights relative to each other - the rights to life, liberty, and property. And these rights can usefully be summed up as rights of self-ownership. But ultimately, as it turns out, we don't really own ourselves: God does. Relative to Him, we are merely "leasing" ourselves, as it were, and are accountable to Him for how we use His property. Relative to other human beings, however, we are in effect self-owners; we must treat others as if they owned themselves, and not use them as if they were our property.
The other school of libertarian thought is 'contractarian.' This view suggests that our rights are not absolute and invoiable gifts from the creator, but are merely social convention:
since the libertarian social contract theorist typically denies that there is any robust conception of human nature which can plausibly determine the content of morality, and typically characterizes what he regards as a "rational" party to the social contract as refusing to agree to any rule that he does not personally see as in his self-interest (where his "self-interest" is typically defined in terms of whatever desires or preferences he actually happens to have), it is easy to see how conservative moral views are going to be ruled out as indefensible from a contractarian point of view: not all parties to the social contract will agree to them, and so they cannot be regarded as morally binding.
Contractarian thinking is often coupled with utilitarian ethics; this has a certain coherence since the contract itself is a very utilitarian way of looking at human relations. Finally, Fesser asks how it is that both of these quite different lines of thought have come together under one label. His answer, I think, gets it right; confusion about fundamentals:
The answer... I think, is that all these versions of libertarianism are often thought, erroneously, to be committed fundamentally to the value of "freedom": they are versions of libertarianism, after all, so liberty or freedom would seem to be their common core, and this might seem to include the freedom of every person to follow whatever moral or religious view he likes. But in fact none of these doctrines takes liberty or freedom to be fundamental. What is taken to be fundamental is rather natural rights, or tradition, or a social contract, or utility, or efficiency; "freedom" falls out only as a consequence of the libertarian's more basic commitment to one of these other values, and the content of that "freedom" differs radically depending on precisely which of these fundamental values he is committed to. For the Aristotelian-natural law theorist, freedom includes not only freedom from excessive state power, but also freedom from those moral vices which prevent the realization of our natural end; for the contractarian or utilitarian, however, freedom may well include freedom from the very concepts of moral vice and natural ends. Freedom would also entail for the latter the right to commit suicide, while for the Lockean, there can be no such right, since suicide would itself violate the rights of the God who created and owns us.
What I take from all of this is that while one can divide the political spectrum into four quadrants, two of them are almost nonsensical and two are mature and robust.
1) Traditional Conservative (economic minimalist and social conservative)2) Libertarian (economic minimalist and social liberal)
3) Religious Left (regulation in both spheres)4) Utilitarian Liberal (economic regulation and social liberal)
The reason I take this stand is that I think it is patently false that one can consider social issues separately from economic ones and still hold a coherent doctrine. The major differences between economic and personal transactions are depth and distance, which are not as significant a factor as they type and nature of the actor himself. Primarily, our ideas in both spheres are driven by how we situate humanity in the world. Positions two and three above are incoherent. The religious left does not understand the beauty of perfect intention. Ie. Things that are forced are of little to no religious value. In this it fails to see God (and the freedom he grants) in others. Number two is a mirage for all the reasons Fesser points out. Once we look at it in depth, we see that it forces us to make a choice about how we situate humans in the world and how their rights are grounded. Once we do that, we are forced to choose between boxes one and four. Box one means we see human rights and human dignity as absolutes. Fesser describes it like this: "Other human beings have an intrinsic dignity and moral value, and this entails a duty on my part not to use them as means to my own ends; I therefore have no right to the fruits of another man's labor." I think of this view as other centered, with the ultimate other being a very mysterious God. Box four has the virtue of coherence, ie. rights based on human rationalism, but I as I've written before, that idea has some deep philosophical problems. Quickly, I would describe it as self centered, something Fesser seems to agree with: "I can do whatever what I want to do, as long as I let everyone else do what they want to do too; there are no grounds for preventing any of us from doing, in general, what we want to do." Fesser describes the danger of box four as "a thin conception of human nature and a tendency toward moral minimalism or even moral skepticism." This willingness to continually reassess the rights and restraints we show to others is very dangerous and arrogant. It means a lone human can (must?) decide how much he owes others and it may even mean he is to decide on the basis of his own interest (utility). The most horrid political doctrines of the past hundred years were those that decided that the time had come to do away with restraint and respect towards those that opposed them. I strongly hold that such a move should be anathema to decent people everywhere. It's interesting, isn't it, that this boils down to an acceptance and mature understanding of God? I worked this out (deontology is the best basis for robust human rights) before I took any kind of a look at religion. Once I did, I was compelled to give it a chance.
In Fesser's second article on the subject, he responds to a critic who suggests that psychology and the social sciences could tell us what humans properly are:
... if Wilkinson really thinks that psychology and social science in general are free from "controversial philosophical assumptions," then he doesn't know much about either social science or philosophy. For another thing, even the harder sciences could surely do nothing to settle the deepest disagreements... At bottom, the dispute here is not scientific, but moral and metaphysical, and cannot be settled without addressing the underlying moral and metaphysical issues. The same thing is true of the debate over whether there is a right to same-sex marriage: what counts as "marriage," as a "right," and so forth, are issues that cannot even properly be understood, much less settled, outside the context of substantive moral theory. Social and natural science are in principle incapable of breaking the deadlock.
The critic is either attempting to define the problem away (like Rawls), or he is turning science into scientism.
Fesser comments on his work at Right Reason. See here and here. The last post contains a good example of why I think it is so important to get clear in our heads what we mean by liberty and freedom. The issues are not solely academic:
Now suppose you libertarianism is grounded instead in some sort of Aristotelian or natural law moral theory. Then our rights derive from the role they play in helping us to flourish as rational social animals, fulfill our natural end, or something of that sort. But in that case it is very hard to see how there could, strictly speaking, be a right to do what is contrary to moral virtue. If we grant, for example, that smoking crack is contrary to virtue, and that rights only exist insofar as they facilitate our ability to master the virtues, then there can be no such thing as a right to smoke crack. There may, of course, nevertheless be all sorts of prudential reasons why we might wonder whether it is a good idea to have government forbid or regulate drug use. But what we can’t say in this case is what libertarians usually want to say – that a government that forbade you to smoke crack would be violating your rights. And this is, indeed, why many libertarians don’t like Aristotelian and natural law approaches to arguing for rights – they fear that such attempts, if followed out consistently, will end up denying that we can really have a right to many things libertarians want to claim we have a right to.
Admittedly, it is easy enough to lose sight of the value of perfect intention in our zeal to help people like this. However, how much intentionality and rationality can seriously addicted people still be said to have? Can we help them, all the while ignoring their immediate objections? I am tempted to think that we do those with impulse control problems a disservice when we place them in a society that is too socially liberal. It isolates them too much, and it makes a category error in describing their addiction as a mere personal choice. It shouldn't be seen as illiberal to oppose choices that destroy the ability to make choices. That said, there is plenty of room to debate what is and is not considered a serious addiction.

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