Jun 192009
 

Libertarians take as axiomatic that every person has a natural right to be secure in his life, liberty, and property. Necessary to respect and protect these rights is the non-agression principle, which states that all interpersonal exchanges must be voluntary and coercion is immoral. Briefly, to take one’s life is to take one’s future, to take one’s liberty is to take one’s present, and to take one’s property (the product of one’s life and liberty) is to take the part of one’s past that produced or acquired that property. A lengthier explanation can be found in the “Philosophy of Liberty”.

This ethos is good so far as it goes, and I find it far more appealing than the interventionism (imperialistic paternalism abroad and socialist paternalism at home) I see taking over American government, but I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that it’s missing something. Libertarianism seems to me to be vulnerable to accusations of being the philosophy of the selfish. While objectivists might not object to such an accusation, I suspect most other libertarians would. Collectivists of various stripes argue that man, self-centered and self-serving as he is, cannot be trusted to adhere to non-aggression for very long without a least a little – and perhaps a great deal of – governance.

Rebuttals I’ve seen have generally relied upon the non-aggression principle as sufficient to keep people from allowing their selfishness to harm others. However, I suspect such an apologia is ultimately derived from the negative form of the Golden Rule, i.e., “do not do to others as you would not have them do to you”. As I see it, it only guards against blatant and explicit acts of coercion or force and offers little incentive for generosity or simple kindness. It only prohibits aggression. The positive form of the Golden Rule demands more, instructing us to “do to others as you would have them to you”. While this guideline encourages us to afford others at least as much good will as we desire for ourselves, by itself it does not provide an incentive for altruism. Without an incentive for voluntary service of others, I believe libertarianism (especially in its purist form, anarchism) is as impossible an ideal to realize sustainably as communism. Surely some will respond that the profit motive gives such an incentive. However, I contend that the profit motive will only encourage the minimum offering of good will necessary to not lose business.

Due to a number of accidents of history and cultural, conceptual groupings of three are attractive to most people. Nevertheless, I propose that a fourth right be regarded as essential to libertarianism if it is to be truly feasible on large scales. I posit that in addition to life, liberty, and property, all persons have the inherent right to be secure in their dignity. This right is defensible according to the personalistic norm laid out by Karol Wojtyla (aka Pope John Paul II) in Love and Responsibility.

“This norm, in its negative aspect, states that the person is a kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as the such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”

and

“This norm, as a commandment, defines and recommends a certain way of relating to God and to people, a certain attitude towards them. This way of relating, this attitude, is in agreement with what the person is, with the value which the person represents, and therefore it is fair. Fairness takes precedence of mere utility (which is all the utilitarian principle has eyes for) – although it does not cancel it but only subordinates it: in dealings with another person everything that is at once of use oneself and fair to that person falls within the limits set by the commandment to love.”

Since this norm is derived from Catholic doctrines, in particular man’s dignity as a creation made in the the image and likeness of God, I wonder if secular libertarianism would be inimical to it. The negative form of the personalistic norm can be partially defended as an extension of the non-aggression principle. Surely to use a person as a means to an end without his voluntary participation is coercive. However, implied by the norm is the injunction that because no person may be used as a means to an end, we musn’t allow even ourselves to be used as means to ends. This would seem to contradict the principle of self-ownership. I can only easily resolve the conflict by replacing self-ownership with self-stewardship. That is, we are stewards of our lives, which God alone owns. Obviously, this would be unacceptable to atheist libertarians. If anyone has a more general resolution, please share it in a comment.

The norm also forbids using others as means to ends (objects) even with their consent. Rather, other persons should be voluntary cooperative participants (subjects) in joint efforts. While one cannot coerce others into participating in society as active subjects, one can and must take reasonable pains to avoid treating others as mere objects. Libertarianism only demands that interactions between persons be consensual. I’m not confident that most libertarians would consider the objectification of others with their consent (e.g., prostitution) to be unethical. The only way out of this I can currently see is to argue that since “the person is a kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as the such the means to an end”, no person can meaningfully say that he consents to being objectified. This reasoning is a bit circular, though, as it uses an aspect of the personalistic norm to defend against an apparent contradiction with general libertarian principles that is a logical consequence of it. Perhaps one of my enlightened readers can find a better argument.

These are not mature thoughts. I’ve only just begun to wrap my mind around weaknesses in libertarianism I perceive and contemplate possible solutions. I invite my readers to engage in a discussion with me and each other about these thoughts.

  • Jose B.

    I agree with the need of securing dignity, but wonder if it will at some point conflict with the need of securing property. Could that ever be the case?

    • Jose B.

      I’m not sure you can convince an atheist to replace “self-ownership” which “self-stewardship”. The former assumes that no one but oneself can decide one’s destiny, while the latter assumes that an external entity has already set up certain rules… Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think “self-stewardship” allows to engage in prostitution or to commit suicide, while “self-ownership” is probably OK with those.

  • I’ve recently heard a success/motivation guru refer to The Platinum Rule. It’s the next, better iteration of the Golden Rule according to him who wants to sell me his books/CDs. It is: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. The idea is that applying your own perspective [do unto others as you would have them do unto you] presumes that your perspective is supreme, or at least co-equal with the other. The Platinum Rule jumps right into the dignity issue you posed by making the actor consider the other’s unique perspective, wishes, predilections into account and act accordingly.

    Here’s rough example: if you are a shy and reserved person, doing unto others might entail remaining silent. But if a shy person is trying to do for another who might be gregarious and extroverted what they want, it would be an action much different than what their own shyness would require under the Golden Rule. It would require the elevation of another above oneself. This ‘self-donation’ is at the heart of Catholic spirituality and especially referenced in Catholic marriage. All of these presuppose that people have an understood set of norms and a range within which the majority function. Outliers in any of these scenarios will always be the masochists and the sadists; though, under the Platinum Rule, the sadists and masochists can team up, fill each other’s needs and leave the rest of the society alone.

  • Also, Christ tells us, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

  • Setting all the stuff about dignity aside for the moment, I’m still hung up on this: “all interpersonal exchanges must be voluntary and coercion is immoral.” I agree with that principle, which looks fantastic on paper, but maybe not so much in practice.

    What is “voluntary”? As a lawyer, I look to contract law and the principle of “duress,” which will take a contract—or an “interpersonal exchange”—out of the voluntariness domain. But to enter the halls of “duress” (and get your contract set aside), the law requires you to climb a lot more steps than most ordinary people expect. If you enter into a contract because you feel your financial situation gives you no other choice, that’s not “duress,” and you will be bound by that obligation. But is it “voluntary”?

    That’s just one way of looking at it. In most “interpersonal exchanges” I question the value of a term like “voluntary.” Recent research tends to show that people make decisions emotionally and only rationalize them after the fact. Often those decisions fail to account for significant costs and benefits, or they incorrectly estimate the potential risks. (For an excellent summary of recent research in a highly readable popularization, see the book Free Market Madness by Peter Ubel.) That’s troublesome for a political theory based on the idea that “voluntary” conduct should be protected: people may act against their interests in ways that seem voluntary “to the naked eye,” so to speak, but may not actually be voluntary under closer examination.

    The longer my life gets, the deeper my questions become about the idea that humans can be adequately explained as entities making voluntary decisions. And I’m not even going into the problem of “rational” decision-making—I’m just talking about whether decisions made by individuals can ever be truly voluntary if they are susceptible to influences that can bend their emotions toward particular outcomes and those influences can be identified, harnessed, and deployed by others to elicit apparently voluntary conduct.

    Perhaps that comes back to the problem of “dignity,” and perhaps people who employ those influences (like marketers and advertisers) are attacking the “dignity” of their subjects by manipulating them into making purchasing decisions that are only ostensibly voluntary, but “dignity” does not seem to me a very helpful term, either, especially if you define it in terms of whether a person is being “treated as an object of use.”

    The pervasive application of cooperation in human societies is a testament to its value, but cooperation is really just mutually treating each other as objects of use. That is fundamentally what “interpersonal exchanges” are: A has XX while B has YY and both of them need XY, so each treats the other as a means to an X or a Y, as the case may be. There is little sense in which most people find it useful or meaningful or worthwhile or helpful to treat that kind of transaction as regarding “dignity,” except to hope that both sides are acting voluntarily—whatever that means. Too bad, I guess, if A needs the XY worse than B needs it, and has some significant collateral objection to dealing with B. Worse, what if B needs the XY while A does not need it at all, and B employs some method of bending A’s emotions to deciding, apparently “voluntarily,” to enter into a transaction that A, for other reasons, does not really want to enter? What if A would have been happier otherwise? Can anyone ever know? And even worse than that, what if B just has a knack for manipulating people like A, and doesn’t even do that “voluntarily,” in the sense that he decided to exert his salesman’s prowess against A’s emotions?

    Meanwhile, people need their Xs and Ys, whatever they may be, and they enter into relationships of all kinds, every day, often to “get something out of it” and perhaps just as often with some other rationalization appearing in their conscious thoughts: “I really do love this person I want to marry.” Well, maybe, or has some lower part of your brain decided that you will have a nicer, easier life with this person than you would with the available alternatives? Could it be that “love” is just a post-hoc rationalization for an interpersonal exchange, with the rationalization simply increasing in strength over time as the risk of loss for losing that relationship becomes greater and greater?

    I suppose we could say, “Alright then. Let’s adopt an ethic of caution, of thinking things through and always trying to make sure we are not just using each other, that we are respecting each other’s dignity.” Do you really think that’s going to happen? Isn’t that just another rationalization to overlay on the necessary uses of each other that we all experience day after day, one to make us feel better, like, perhaps, love?

    In other words, while I agree with most of your sentiments here—voluntariness and dignity are good—when I sit down and think about them at great length, I become deeply skeptical that those terms have any useful content.

  • First, thank you for your lengthy and constructive comment. 🙂

    In most “interpersonal exchanges” I question the value of a term like “voluntary.” Recent research tends to show that people make decisions emotionally and only rationalize them after the fact. Often those decisions fail to account for significant costs and benefits, or they incorrectly estimate the potential risks.

    I think these assertions and those that follow from them are rather beside the point. It doesn’t matter a whit whether humans act rationally or not. The question relevant to this discussion is whether they are as free in their actions are they are in their wills.

    The pervasive application of cooperation in human societies is a testament to its value, but cooperation is really just mutually treating each other as objects of use. That is fundamentally what “interpersonal exchanges” are: A has XX while B has YY and both of them need XY, so each treats the other as a means to an X or a Y, as the case may be.

    I do not think Wojtyla intended the meaning of “use” you have employed. In your example, A and B can either cooperate (i.e., work together or be equally free agents of operation) and/or collaborate (i.e., work together) in the production of XY from XX and YY, or one or both of them can treat the other as merely a means to obtaining XY (i.e., a tool, an asset, or a means of conveyance). In the extreme case, A is the slave of B or vice versa. For instance, soldiers are objectified by governments and effectively treated as sophisticated pieces of equipment rather than sentient and sapient persons. Thoreau described this well:

    “A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts — a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments…

    “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.”

  • On your first responsive comment, I thought I specifically said I was passing over the question of “rational” decisions and talking only about “voluntary” decisions.

    On your second responsive comment, the point I was trying to make is that I’m skeptical there is a meaningful difference between what you contrast as “cooperation” and “collaberation.”

    It’s not just in “extreme cases” that A is a slave to B, or vice versa, or both. The fact that A and B, in large part, need each other to obtain the goal they seek—which Aristotle would probably identify as eudaimonia—defeats the “voluntary” nature of their relationship, whether you call it “collaborative” or “cooperative.”

    Scour the world and you will no doubt find countless thoughtful and gentle people who work to protect freedom and dignity but nevertheless question whether their own place in the world, and their daily endeavors, are any different than the “soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all,” who find themselves in a business against their inclinations by way of necessity.

    Pretending that only “governments” and “states” turn people into “machines” is, I think, a fantasy of liberals and conservatives alike. The profound interdependency of people everywhere, including the hermits, whose escape was at least necessitated and perhaps facilitated by the society they seek to avoid, means that we are locked into and limited by each other. How many of your “voluntary” actions are driven by external forces? How many of your decisions are limited, or even decided for you, not by a state or a government, but by the simple fact that you are embedded in human society? How many decisions never even have to be made and slip past your discretion completely unnoticed because the mere existence of other people makes those decisions for you?

    Did I come to work voluntarily today? Am I employed voluntarily? Did I appear in court voluntarily this morning? Did I accept that client voluntarily? Were my arguments voluntary? Will I go home voluntarily at the end of the day? How many of my decisions are pre-made for me, not by the operation of any state or government, but by the sheer necessities of living?

    And how many decisions does my life “make” for others, even when I am not trying to make those decisions or cause those consequences? Does my existence crowd someone else out of the things I am doing? Would someone else have my job, be sitting at my desk, taking my clients, if I were not? When I convince a client to retain my services instead of one of the many other attorneys who would love to have more work, haven’t I used both the client and those other attorneys? (And isn’t the client using me?)

    But the thing that affects happiness and dignity is not whether people are using me for their own ends, but whether I feel like they are using me for their own ends. So I don’t think there are any deep, substantial principles at stake. I think Thomas Jefferson got it right when he wrote about “artificial good humor”: no one really believes that we all like or respect each other, but things run a lot more smoothly when we act like we do.

    I don’t believe for a moment that people who seem consumed with human dignity, kindness for others, and so on, actually care more about other people. They may have cultivated the helpful belief that they do actually care more about other people, because we do not live well by knowing that we are deceived, but we can live well by deceiving ourselves into believing we have not been. I think those people have simply, as Jefferson suggested, “render[ed] habitual a substitute nearly equivalent to the real virtue,” but I would go further and say that “real virtue” does not exist. Anyone who appears to be especially virtuous is still the same highly emotional ape as anyone else, but has, by practice and habit, taken up a way of life that increases happiness, both for himself and for those around him. I think Aristotle suggested something similar in the Nicomachean Ethics.

    • “On your second responsive comment, the point I was trying to make is that I’m skeptical there is a meaningful difference between what you contrast as “cooperation” and “collaberation.”

      Yeah, I made that clear as mud. That’s what I get for trying to comment while packing up to leave work. 😉 I meant only to distinguish planning and orchestrating from laboring. Either can be done voluntarily or coercively.

      It’s not just in “extreme cases” that A is a slave to B, or vice versa, or both. The fact that A and B, in large part, need each other to obtain the goal they seek—which Aristotle would probably identify as eudaimonia—defeats the “voluntary” nature of their relationship, whether you call it “collaborative” or “cooperative.”

      Perhpas the differentiation I seek is that between symbiotic and parasitic relationships. The degree to which a relationship is symbiotic or parasitic is the degree to which it is voluntary or coercive.

      Scour the world and you will no doubt find countless thoughtful and gentle people who work to protect freedom and dignity but nevertheless question whether their own place in the world, and their daily endeavors, are any different than the “soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all,” who find themselves in a business against their inclinations by way of necessity.

      The degree to which one’s choices are determined by indifferent circumstances and personal preferences versus coercive actions of others would seem to determine how free one is.

      Pretending that only “governments” and “states” turn people into “machines” is, I think, a fantasy of liberals and conservatives alike.

      I meant to imply no such thing. Militaries are just a convenient example. Collectives are, however, particularly dangerous because they cannot be reasoned with. It is hard enough to reason and plead with a person, let alone a golem like the state.

      When I convince a client to retain my services instead of one of the many other attorneys who would love to have more work, haven’t I used both the client and those other attorneys? (And isn’t the client using me?)

      Not necessarily. Does the client respect you and treat you as a person performing a task he cannot perform alone, or are you merely a machine to be treated as property. Do you respect your client as a person in need of assistance just a source of employment? That is, to what degree are you and your client manipulative (Aha! The word I needed earlier!) versus cooperative?

      But the thing that affects happiness and dignity is not whether people are using me for their own ends, but whether I feel like they are using me for their own ends.

      A prostitute is being used by her clients whether she feels used or not. She is participating in an activity entirely hostile to dignity.

      So I don’t think there are any deep, substantial principles at stake. I think Thomas Jefferson got it right when he wrote about “artificial good humor”: no one really believes that we all like or respect each other, but things run a lot more smoothly when we act like we do.

      I don’t believe for a moment that people who seem consumed with human dignity, kindness for others, and so on, actually care more about other people. They may have cultivated the helpful belief that they do actually care more about other people, because we do not live well by knowing that we are deceived, but we can live well by deceiving ourselves into believing we have not been. I think those people have simply, as Jefferson suggested, “render[ed] habitual a substitute nearly equivalent to the real virtue,” but I would go further and say that “real virtue” does not exist. Anyone who appears to be especially virtuous is still the same highly emotional ape as anyone else, but has, by practice and habit, taken up a way of life that increases happiness, both for himself and for those around him. I think Aristotle suggested something similar in the Nicomachean Ethics.

      “If you don’t behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave.” – Archbishop Fulton Sheen

  • Maybe I’m not being clear enough. Everyone is in a position like the hypothetical prostitute you invoke: we are all being used and manipulated whether we feel that way or not, and “dignity” is just an imaginary gloss on the underlying reality, which is neither “entirely hostile to dignity” nor the opposite.

    The differentiation between “symbiotic” and “parasitic” relationships makes no sense where the unconscious human mind substantially increases the uncertainty in understanding any given action or transaction. You are looking at people as though their conscious thoughts are all that exist or matter, or that their conscious thoughts are all that matter when working on ethics or morals. When most manipulation occurs without either party consciously recognizing that it’s happening, even when they are paying attention, living awake, being mindful, or whatever you want to call it, even relationships that seem “symbiotic” are likely to be “parasitic.” And it also seems likely that many “parasitic” relationships are not actually “symbiotic” as a result of the relative psychological states and needs of the parties.

    In other words, I think your outlook on this one seems a little like a flat-earther trying to explain geography. You’re ignoring a whole other dimension.

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  • “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think ‘self-stewardship’ allows to engage in prostitution or to commit suicide, while ‘self-ownership’ is probably OK with those.”

    That would depend on for whom one is a steward. How does he or how do they feel about prostitution? In the trivial case, one is the steward of what one owns, so atheists should have no problem with the former.

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