Saturday, November 26, 2011

Palmer on libertarianism

My review of Tom G. Palmer’s recent book Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice appears in the latest issue of Reason Papers, now edited by Carrie-Ann Biondi and Irfan Khawaja.  (For the full contents of the current issue and of archived issues, go here.)

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant as always.

Monte said...

Great review Dr Feser. I have a query regarding your distinction between negative and positive ways of promoting a substantive conception of freedom. An example of latter (which you reject) is the government forcing people to attend Church. But couldn't this be reformulated as a negative way of promoting freedom. The government could make it illegal to do all actions that are inconsistent with going to Church on a Sunday morning, for example. Sitting at home all day Sunday is inconsistent with going to Church on Sunday, so that would be illegal and so people would be forced to not do this, but in a negative rather than positive way. My worry is that the negative/positive distinction isn't very useful.

Tony said...

Monte, I agree that the distinction isn't really clear yet, but I am not sure your example quite works. The state cannot make a list of "proscribed activities for Sunday" that has the effect of making you go to church, because there is always something else not on the list: not doing anything in Set A cannot be molded into "going to church" unless one of the things in Set A is "not going to church".

It is my impression that Feser's division is between the law PREscribing an act in conformity with the end versus the law PROscribing acts that obstruct the end. But in practice this becomes fuzzy in places. I would hesitate to say that the mere fuzziness in gray areas unravels the entire distinction, but it causes concern.

requiring citizens to
attend church services on pain of fines or imprisonment — would (we can agree with the libertarian) surely be tyrannical.


By the way, I am not in the least bit sure that Feser is quite right in saying this. I can well imagine in a state that has a state-established religion, a law which says that you have to go to church (on pain of fine) unless you have registered as a conscientious objector and testified under oath before a judge that you believe that your very presence in church during service constitutes an affront to God (laws requiring your presence may be distinct from laws requiring that you worship according to that rite, but some objectors would feel that even their presence is unacceptable cooperation with evil). So people who really do believe in the state religion would be fined when they miss service because they are refusing to live up to their public commitments.

mpresley said...

One of the problems with natural right is that it generally presumes that everyone possesses it equally, at least from a beginning. However, as the ancients understood, natural equality is the last thing that can be expected of men, and this fact calls into question the fundamental ground of natural right at all.


Hobbes was perhaps the first to put forth a clear idea of this equality within his explication of the so-called “right of nature.” From there the idea has played itself out through many bizarre twists and turns toward its logical end—conclusions which are really not very pleasant on the whole, but what can be expected?

Anonymous said...

Really lovin' the political philosophy.

(Question: Is libertarianism preferable to neoconservatism? Those two are what seem to be on offer this Republican election cycle. It's a shame that paleoconservatism has hardly any modern voices.)

Daniel Smith said...

Dr. Feser: "if the very point of natural rights is to safeguard our pursuit of what is good and obligatory for us under natural law, it is hard to see how we could have a natural right to do something that is inherently wrong or bad."

I've only recently come to embrace some libertarian thought (as a result of my support for Ron Paul) so my thoughts on the matter are (as usual) those of a newbie, but isn't 'the right to fail' a part of our natural rights?

I'm reminded of the scripture Revelation 22:11 - "Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy."

Obviously the right to fail does not include the right to violate another individual's rights, but it would seem that the concept of free will would entail that it is essentially our right to sin or to refrain from sin (and answer to God later) and that the government's role is only to keep our sins from harming someone else. Otherwise, (if it is only our right to do good) we would not even have the right to think sinful thoughts. How can someone argue against the right to think? Or to speak? It would seem that those who would think or speak contrary to the will of God would not have the right to do so under your interpretation of rights.

Thoughts?

Tony said...

but it would seem that the concept of free will would entail that it is essentially our right to sin or to refrain from sin (and answer to God later) and that the government's role is only to keep our sins from harming someone else.

Daniel, I would suggest that in addition to asking whether we have a right to think and speak, one should also ask "do we have a right to do wrong," and if your answer is yes, are you using "right" and "wrong" as exact correlatives in that answer? Most people are NOT using them as exact correlatives in such an expression: the "wrong" is in terms of moral good and moral evil. "Right" is instead in terms of "lack of external coercion" or something like that. That is, it presumes that the way to think about "rights" is under that view where the consideration is about external forces, not about interior forces. But such a way of thinking simply begs us to ask: what if "right" were being used as the correlative of "wrong": do you exercise your faculties well when, without external coercion, you choose evil, and if you are not exercising them well, are you sure that you want to to call this freedom?

One alternative to explore is to call the faculty of choosing (good or ill) the faculty of free will, and to call the condition in which you readily, easily, joyfully and habitually choose the act that is the morally good act, i.e. the act that is most consistent with our true end, Freedom. In that distinction, it would be clear that a person can act under free will to choose an end that defeats true human happiness without acting in freedom.

The other question is whether we really can choose evil and not have it harm other people? There is a long tradition of moral teachers who insist that it is impossible. Take the alcoholic who decides that he is alone for the evening so it can't hurt anyone if he gets drunk. OK, but he damages his liver further, which means he makes a call on extra medical need. And he worsens his addiction, which strains his marriage further, and damages his ability to raise his kids to see what it means to love a spouse. The assumption that there are evil acts that don't harm anyone else is not certain in the least.

djindra said...

"if the very point of natural rights is to safeguard our pursuit of what is good and obligatory for us under natural law, it is hard to see how we could have a natural right to do something that is inherently wrong or bad."

So claims a tyrant.

Anonymous said...

Are you calling Doc Feser a tyrant?

djindra said...

Anonymous,

Fortunately, he's not in a position to be a tyrant. Nevertheless, his version of "natural rights" (which is an outright rejection of rights) lays one foundation for tyranny. We would be at the mercy of what the tyrant claims we are obliged to do. That certainly would not be the pursuit of our own happiness.

Edward Feser said...

Yet I've allowed djindra to spew his mindless crap, including his continual invective against me personally, for months now, unmolested. Some tyrant.

Anyway, why any of you folks still bother to waste your time engaging with this person, I have no idea...

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if this is on topic?
www.law.northwestern.edu/journals/jihr/v2/2/2.pdf

mpresley said...

@ anonymous:

If I may say so, the link you provide is certainly on topic. In the paper the author returns to Ockham as a progenitor of what he terms subjective right. I believe his view that Strauss cited Hobbes as the first modern champion for the idea of subjective right is correct, but must be modified somewhat in context. Strauss was later keen to place "blame" for the "modern project's" origination first on Machiavelli, and only then on Hobbes.

Again, the problem we face is that right takes a universal turn somewhere, and we eventually wind up with all manner of equality based, government imposed outcomes based upon right. But as anyone familiar with different peoples understands, there is less fundamental affinity among disparate groups than there is difference. And one cannot underestimate the power of difference, especially in the realm of political action. At least that has been my experience.

As far as libertarianism goes, it would be great for small, cohesive, intellectually inclined groups of reasonably high IQ and achievement. But it will never prosper in today's America, since that is not what we are becoming.

And libertarianism's emphasis on "freedom of association," an emphasis that usually translates into "open borders" policies, seals its doom. That is to say, those now coming in as "immigrants" and who now demand political representation are thoroughly anti-libertarian in their outlook. As they become more politically influential, libertarian thinking will be the first political idea to be tossed overboard.

All that being said, I nominate Ron Paul as the next Fed Chairman.

man with a computer said...

If I may say so, the link you provide is certainly on topic. In the paper the author returns to Ockham as a progenitor of what he terms subjective right. I believe his view that Strauss cited Hobbes as the first modern champion for the idea of subjective right is correct, but must be modified somewhat in context. Strauss was later keen to place "blame" for the "modern project's" origination first on Machiavelli, and only then on Hobbes.

You know, I've seen endless discussions on who is to blame for the idea of the modern state, ranging from Hobbes to Machiavelli to Cardinal Richelieu. Isn't it just fairer to admit that it was the zeitgeist of 16th century Europe? Nominalism was all the rage among the learned classes, not only the secular ones but also the religious (especially Protestant).

I guess you can blame Ockham. But he was inspired by the voluntarists. We can go on forever. Let's just settle with the fact that it happened and that it wasn't a good thing.

Daniel Smith said...

Tony,

Obviously I was using "rights" in the sense of liberty - not in a moral sense (the subject is Libertarianism after all.)

I agree that "right" - in the moral sense - is a whole different ballgame.

It would seem, however, that a system of government based on "moral rights" would be something akin to a theocracy, and I shudder when I think of what man-made theocracies do!!!

djindra said...

Ed,

Do ideas have consequences or not? I think they do -- at least sometimes. So why should I ignore you, Robert Bork, Rick Santorum, George Weigel, or the many other "conservative" voices trying to recast obligation as liberty? It's hard to miss the Orwellian nature of that project. But rather than defending your position you merely hoist your thin skin. It flaps in the wind against my supposed continual invectives against you, personally. Poor boy. You can't even recognize the difference between my (admittedly) continual attacks on your inane arguments and my rare attacks on your person.

Btw, clearly you are not a tyrant. But as I mentioned, ideas do have consequences. They may be unintended consequences but that's no consolation when tyrants discover the "salutary" nature of those ideas.

Anonymous said...

djindra, go away.

Edward Feser said...

Hmm, so I tolerate months of this stuff without comment, and when at last I make a passing reference to it I show thereby that I have a "thin skin."

You know, djindra, I think you really believe the things you say. Which makes you a marvel of psychology. You should be on display somewhere.

As to your various criticisms of my views, the reason I routinely ignore them is either (a) because I think they are so consistently penetrating and devastating that I do not know how to respond, or (b) because I think they are so laughably ill-informed and feeble that letting you make a complete ass of yourself every time you put fingers to keyboard is all the response required.

Now, here's a little quiz for you: Is it more likely that I would let you post your stuff here on my blog day after day, month after month -- when I could, of course, easily delete it all as soon as it appears -- if (a) is true, or if (b) is true?

There are two ways to answer this question: The djindra way, and the way everyone else will answer it.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser,

Please, please take your own advice regarding trolls, and let your last comment regarding djindra be your final one.

He keeps coming back because he has some of your other readers on his line, now that he's gotten a response from you . . .

Edward Feser said...

Please, please take your own advice regarding trolls, and let your last comment regarding djindra be your final one.

Oh, it will be. I'm not feeding him. I'm saying "Goodbye." Nobody took my advice vis-a-vis troll-feeding, so I'm afraid there's only one other way to deal with them.

djindra said...

Ed,

I have no idea why you ignore most of the posters here, including me. I had assumed the most likely reason was (c) you don't read my posts. If you did, I could assume (d) you're busy and choose to do better things with your time. That's a sensible thing to do since (e) responding to me would gain you nothing. I could list more reasons but I hesitate to do so. They might be construed as an attack on your person.

I have no doubt you and others honestly believe my arguments are laughably ill-informed and feeble. If I saw some merit in your arguments that opinion might affect me. Fortunately your own arguments are all the evidence I need to discount your opinion of mine.

If you think I've been trying all these months to bait you into a discussion, think again. I don't know why the prevailing opinion seems to be that I care about responses. I'm perfectly happy expressing myself whether I'm acknowledged or not. There are reasonable people out there who might silently get a kick out of a dissenting voice -- even one they might not share.

Anonymous said...

djindra, I disagree that Ed ignores most of the commenters here. He usually answers those who ask genuine questions.

Daniel Smith said...

Well Ed didn't respond to my question - but he did respond to djindra.

So what does that say about me?

Anonymous said...

"I could list more reasons but I hesitate to do so. They might be construed as an attack on your person. "

Which you engage in, constantly. And poorly. Yawn.

"I don't know why the prevailing opinion seems to be that I care about responses."

Because it's transparently obvious that you do. Trolls are trolls.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Daniel,

It says nothing about you. And I have, of course, replied to questions from you in the past. Almost always, though, I'm too busy to reply to anyone in the comboxes if doing so would take more than a couple of sentences. (And I've got a large backlog of reader emails -- and typed letters too! -- asking me questions about all sorts of things, and that I haven't gotten to replying to either. No time!)

The only reason I'm commenting on djindra is that the last straw has fallen and he is now cordially invited to get lost. He can join the three other people I've banned in the entire history of the blog. That people keep trying to engage him despite my warnings about troll-feeding -- and then keep expressing surprise when, after all these months, doing so still proves fruitless! -- shows that there is no other option. I'm tired of this crap cluttering up the comboxes and deterring serious commenters from contributing.

Daniel Smith said...

Thanks for that Dr. Feser.

(I didn't really think you thought that little of me - I was just hoping to prod you into more of a discussion on libertarianism!!!)

TimL said...

Djindra
"I have no idea why you ignore most of the posters here, including me."

Box of kleenex for the child?

TimL said...

No, you're a whining child because you're allowed to post here, you're not banned and then you cry because you're being ignored.

Let me guess, you're 'entitled' to not only have an open platform as a guest on someone else's blog but you're also 'entitled' to have people listen to your rantings and respond.

Yes, someone get this djindra a kleenex box.

DNW said...

mpresley said...

@ anonymous:

If I may say so, the link you provide is certainly on topic. In the paper the author returns to Ockham as a progenitor of what he terms subjective right. I believe his view that Strauss cited Hobbes as the first modern champion for the idea of subjective right is correct, but must be modified somewhat in context. Strauss was later keen to place "blame" for the "modern project's" origination first on Machiavelli, and only then on Hobbes."


LOL I've never been able to get through Strauss' work on Hobbes at "one sitting". I keep reading a few pages and throwing it across the room.

DNW said...

If I may make one further comment on the Don Jindra matter.

Don, you have your own website; a couple in fact. And you certainly could have left any number of links in Feser's comment boxes to essays you felt addressed important issues. You have been reminded of that more than once.


The place for you to lay out your own philosophy is on one of your own websites. Nothing is stopping you apart from an emotional neediness which makes assaulting Feser's moral character on his blog more important to you than consistently laying out your own views on yours.

And one thing regarding your supposed views on liberty.

You pose in Feser's comment boxes as a classical liberal or mainstream libertarian. I have read through your web pages and essays, and you are, frankly, nothing of the sort. Your writings reveal through implication that you're fine with the principle of politically enforced redistribution of life energies, as long as it is in the name of some "secular purpose".

You would have done better to openly argue for what you really want on your own site, rather than hiding in your communitarian closet and sniping at Feser.

Daniel Smith said...

All I have to say is "thanks so much djindra"! Thanks for ruining, what I was hoping would be, a lively discussion on a topic I was really hoping to hear more from Dr. Feser (and others) on.

As I said, with my decision to support Ron Paul, I've become extremely interested in libertarian ideas.

It's too bad threads like this get derailed so easily!