A Conversation With A Libertarian
Due to my essay, “Rand Paul, Libertarianism, and Legislating Morality”
I have been engaged in a dialogue with a libertarian called Evan G. Rogers who wrote a couple of essays in response to my ideas ( http://hubpages.com/hub/Legislating-Morality-Complete-Nonsense and http://hubpages.com/hub/This-Rand-Paul-Controversy-Not-that-bad). Our direct discussion thus far has occurred in the comments section at the bottom of my Rand Paul essay where the full text of the exchanges can be read.
Mr. Rogers has raised several points in the course of our conversation that require an extended answer. Additionally, as I am building to writing an essay or series of essays on my own ethical position, I thought it might be helpful to begin clearing away some difficulties that many people seem to have when confronted with thinking about ethics.
Libertarians, and many others besides, tend to approach ethics with what they think is a sophisticated attitude. Each person has her beliefs about right and wrong – so the best course is to leave each to her own devices about these issues and not argue about them.
Mr. Rogers is firmly in this camp and presents it as a key libertarian belief (All quotes from Evan G. Rogers will be taken from our conversation in the comments section of “Rand Paul, Libertarianism, and Legislating Morality” unless otherwise noted):
“. . . The simple fact that we're having this debate shows us that morality is VERY subjective. I think that racists should be allowed to be racist with their property, and you disagree...
“... that proves that morals are subject: I (you) disagree with your (my) position on morals!, ergo, morals are subjective.
“I'm not saying that "moral subjectivism" is good, I'm simply saying that morals can be completely irrational, and that it's best to completely keep morality out of law: just let people have their rights to property (as you've seen me argue, I strongly believe that life is a property that you can own **as long as it's voluntary -- I am not in favor of forced slavery**).” (Evan G. Rogers)
I am going to rely on a series of arguments that a philosopher called James Rachels employed in his book, “Elements of Moral Philosophy” to refute the position that ethical subjectivism is a good, rational theory, and show that it leads to absurd conclusions. In short, I am going to argue that ethical subjectivism is untrue and should not be accepted by rational people as a legitimate answer to the question, “What is morality?”
First, Mr. Rogers is using an argument that is in bad logical form – it is an invalid argument. The conclusion cannot be derived from the premise; in fact, the premises prove nothing about either the truth or falsity of the conclusion – there is no connection between the premises and the conclusion.
If we state Mr. Rogers argument about the subjectivity of morality, it would look something like this:
Premise: Some people believe racists should be allowed to be discriminatory with their property; others believe they should not be allowed to be discriminatory with their property.
Conclusion: Ethics is subjective. There is no objective truth to be had about ethics.
Or, if we strip it down further:
Premise: People disagree about ethical issues.
Conclusion: Ethics is subjective. There is no objective truth about ethics.
Is this compelling from a logical point of view – i.e. Is this logical? As stated earlier, no, it isn’t.
Let’s test the form of the argument. If we take this argument and make its elements into variables, we can see its underlying structure:
Premise: A and B
Notice that C does not appear anywhere in A or B – how is it derived from either of them in a deduction? In short, it can’t be. If that’s too difficult to follow, let’s just insert a different set of information into the variables and see if that argument makes any sense:
Premise: Some people think the world is round (A) while others think it is flat (B).
Conclusion: There is no objective truth about the shape of the world (C).
Same structure, just a different subject – with a conclusion that does not follow from the premise. One can do this all day long; no conclusion will ever follow from any premise using this form of deduction, which is logically invalid.
This argument, however, does not prove that subjectivism is wrong – the conclusion that there is no objective truth about morality could be true. What it does prove, however, is that the argument that people disagree about ethical issues proves nothing except the fact that people disagree; but it is still possible that someone could be right and someone could be wrong about the issue.
So we need to examine the essence of the subjectivist position to see if, in fact, it is true or false.
Ethical subjectivists in modern times trace their lineage back to David Hume and many of the Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment who talked about what they called a theory of moral sentiments. Hume, in “A Treatise of Human Nature,” worked out an argument that runs roughly as follows:
If we look around in the world using our senses, we do not find any moral principles – they are not there like rocks and trees and the sky. From no pure description of facts can you ever derive a moral principle – describe an instance of murder, for example, in minute detail; you will not find what makes murder wrong in any of the details. Nor can we use mathematical reason and find a moral principle in our minds that stands out with any necessity like 1+1=2. Yet things like murder bother us and we do not approve of them morally. Hume, not locating moral principles in either the sensory world or in a mathematical-like use of reason (which he thought was the only proper use of reason), thought that the origin of our moral principles was in our feelings of approval or disapprobation.
This means that right and wrong are created by our feelings. We subjectively create right and wrong by what we like and don’t like. As we tend to be roughly “wired up” emotionally in a similar way, the idea was that we tend to approve and disapprove of similar things. Yet right and wrong are right and wrong “for me,” not “for everyone,” i.e. not objectively or universally.
Again, I turn to James Rachels to help in an examination of this theory.
Let’s look at some absurd conclusions that follow if ethical subjectivism is true.
First: There is no such thing moral disagreement. How can this be true? Isn’t it true that people disagree about moral issues all of the time? But, if subjectivism is true, we can’t really disagree.
Let’s keep with our running example of racism. A neo-Nazi feels racism is right; it is right for him if subjectivism is true. A civil rights activist feels racism is wrong; it is wrong for him if subjectivism is true. Now, the neo-Nazi will have to agree that the civil rights activist feels racism is wrong, and the civil rights activist will have to agree that, for the neo-Nazi, racism is approved of. Both should be factually true. So there are no grounds for disagreement.
It is like any other matter of taste. If you like coffee and I don’t, there is no reason to argue that my feelings about coffee are superior to yours: We both have our feelings about it and that’s that.
But moral issues don’t appear to be like matters of taste. The neo-Nazi and the civil rights activist most certainly oppose one another, disagree, and each argues his position against the other’s. Something more than our feelings about morality seems to be at stake in discussions about ethical issues.
Second: If morality involves only accurately stating my feelings about ethical issues, I can never be wrong about moral questions.
I know what I feel – what I like and don’t. If you say, “Is racism wrong?” I know how I feel about that. I say, “I don’t like it.” Therefore, it is bad (for me). And so on, with any and all moral questions – as long as I tell you how I feel, I speak truly and am always right.
Which, again, seems very odd. I can be wrong about mathematical questions, scientific questions, I can be wrong about dates, I can be wrong about laws, I can be wrong about my she size – I can be wrong about a myriad of things, but when it comes to something as import and confusing as ethical questions, suddenly, I am all but omniscient. Why and how is this? It is tied up in the next point.
Third: Ethical statements are always true. If I get up this morning hating other races and you ask me how I feel about racism, I will say racism is good. I like it, I approve of it; for me, it is moral. Let’s say I have some experiences during the day and my feelings change. By evening you ask me how I feel about racism and I say it is bad, I don’t like it, I don’t feel it is appropriate.
Notice what happened. For me racism is both good and bad. For me it is true that racism is good and it is true that racism is bad. And this violates a law of argumentative logic codified by Aristotle 2,300 years ago: A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time in the same respect.
Which means that this position is illogical, irrational. Racism is either good or bad, but it can’t be both at the same time. If it is “for me” this simply signifies that my feelings about it are vacillating, not that the moral status of racism (or any other moral issue) changes every time I do.
We will leave James Rachels’ argument for a moment and turn to some observations derived from the ancient Stoics and modern psychology.
Hume and those who follow him made a tremendous error about the role of emotions in moral judgments and the “creation” of morality. He assumed emotions, feelings, “sentiments” are primary – a sort of bedrock that just “is” without any foundation hidden beneath them. Reality strongly suggests otherwise. The reason why we feel as we do about things and events is because of the beliefs that we hold previous to our encounter with these things and events.
Return to Hume’s example of murder. If we examine the facts of a murder, no, we do not find in the description of the event any moral values. And it probably repulses us emotionally – if we are psychologically “normal” or especially if we have any relationship with the victim, or can imagine such. Yet the real reason murder repulses us is that we have certain beliefs about murder – if we lacked these, we would not have the same emotional experience.
In fact, we cannot even identify a murder as a murder unless we have the beliefs and concepts that allow us to pick it out from other forms of killing or other events. Babies do not recognize murder – they lack beliefs and concepts about it. Animals do not recognize murder – again, they do not have beliefs and concepts concerning such. If I come from a culture that defines revenge killing as not being murder, my emotional response to an example of someone being slain out of vengeance will be entirely different than someone form a culture that does not recognize revenge killing as a legitimate excuse for taking a life. If I am a sociopath or psychopath, I may simply not have any beliefs that killing human beings is wrong at all.
Furthermore, if I see a larger tree choking off a smaller tree by overshadowing it, I normally do not experience this as a “murder.” I have no emotional response to that at all, while I will have an emotional response to one human smothering another – because of my beliefs about what humans are and how humans should act and what humans should avoid, and because I do not see trees as being like humans in significant ways. The same applies to animals: Many have no qualms about sending animals to slaughterhouses and then eating their meat; they do not see this as mass murder because of their underlying beliefs about what animals are; and others have an opposite view, refusing to eat meat because they see slaughtering animals as unjust killing of innocent beings.
The real moral question then, is not about what we feel about this or that ethical issue, but, rather, what we believe about them and whether our beliefs are rational, can be defended rationally, and whether there are better and worse beliefs to be had, and whether we should change our minds about things when our beliefs are shown to be deficient.
Contemporary psychotherapy bears this out, if we need empirical evidence. The most effective forms of treatment for emotional disorders, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy all involve the assumption that our beliefs control our emotions. Without belaboring the point, all three have shown their efficacy in the treatment of mental illness – after a few weeks of CBT, for example, in which the patient is trained to change the beliefs and expectations underlying their emotional responses, the emotional responses begin to change, mild to moderate depression (for instance) lessens or disappears, and the patient is able to live a productive life usually without the aid of drug therapies.
There is little, if any, evidence that we just “have” emotional responses to anything without an underlying belief system, even if the beliefs are usually not consciously held by most people. But they are there and can be brought to light by reflection and the effect of these beliefs on emotions has been demonstrated in the field of psychology.
Again, for ethics, the issue is: Are my beliefs good and ones? What is the truth and worth of my beliefs? Not, “I have feelings, or I subjectively approve or disapprove of this and that.”
Hume did morality a service in recognizing what has come to be called the “Is/Ought Distinction” or “The Naturalistic Fallacy.” This was his position that I cannot derive any moral guidance from simply describing empirical reality (the reality I experience through my senses). Where he went wrong – and many after him went wrong as well – is to assume that empirical reality is where we need to look to locate moral values, or “What we ought to do and avoid.”
He also made the mistake, common in the Enlightenment with its near-idolization of the mathematico-scientific method, of assuming that reason is impotent when faced with problems of discovering moral values. There are different forms of reasoning, each appropriate to its object of study. Mathematical reasoning is very precise because its objects are very precise and idealized; science using mathematics only studies the portion of reality that can be measured or treated “as if” it were mathematical. However, moral reasoning uses logic, not mathematical reasoning, and builds a case by appealing to pertinent facts and evidence and argues for principles and conclusions. It is not scientific, nor is it always precise, but it is an effective and legitimate use of reasoning.
James Rachels and other moral philosophers show we find moral facts , not simply by using the senses and looking for them as we would rocks, trees, and the sky, but by building a case for them, making a rational argument using logic, and showing that this argument is better than the alternatives.
We can know murder (the taking of a life defined as innocent or off-limits to killing), for example, is wrong by making a moral argument: We know no society can exist in which at least some people are defined as off-limits for killing, otherwise violence would run rampant, no civilization would emerge, and any surviving group, if it was to survive, would either take power and declare murder wrong or else flee and establish such a society elsewhere, out of danger. And we know that humans cannot thrive outside of societies – while humans can survive at a minimal level without others, even establish a sort of private culture, but the life of the hermit is generally not as rich in opportunities as life with other humans: one person alone will not tend to advance as much as a group of humans working together and cooperating. Plus the hermit will pass nothing on to others even if he has insights of value. In fact, where we find humans, historically and prehistorically, we find them already and always living in societies. Prohibition of murder is a prerequisite for the establishment of human societies – we do not “invent” this moral value either because we desire it (which is a dressed up way of saying we “feel like it”) or because we first find we want to live in societies and need it so we make it up. That murder is not to be done simply “is” – we recognize it (dimly or more fully) and can live together peaceably or else we ignore it and we cannot live together for any amount of time. We cannot live good, full human lives and practice murder.
And just as we have done for the prohibition of murder, we can argue for, as Rachels does in his essays and many other moral philosophers do in their works, other moral values: the value of truthfulness, the necessity of the care of children. We can argue against theft, unfettered greed. We can argue for moral virtues, such as being just, courageous, moderate, thoughtful, merciful, free from emotional vicissitudes. And, yes, we can argue against racism and the like.
So much for ethical subjectivism as a viable alternative for reasonable people who wish to be good at being human.
Where Do Moral Values Come From?
I argue that, in some sense, moral values pre-exist us and that our value as human beings co-exists with us and is inseparable from us – in this I follow the Stoics and Immanuel Kant, as well as many other philosophers, especially from the Classical and Medieval worlds. Mr. Rogers and the libertarian position he upholds, on the contrary, sees human value and all values of whatever sort as created by “desire.”
At one point in our conversation, I said:
[RVI]"we arrive with an absolute value as rational beings."
Mr. Rogers responded:
[Evan G. Rogers]: “I have to disagree. If someone is a complete waste of life: doesn't produce anything, demands to be fed 'or else', and proceeds to broach on everyone else's rights, then they don't really have any worth, do they? ... I will admit that it is VERY difficult to reach the "0% value level" as a human, but surely - if we try hard enough - we could reach it.
“Nothing has absolute value. Absolute value is nonsense. Value is created when someone wants something. If it is desired, then it is valuable. Just ask all those bozos who bought "pet rocks" back in the 70s: they were just rocks, but they were being sold for (how much?) 20 bucks or so. They were just rocks, but they suddenly had more value based completely and solely on the fact that people wanted those specific rocks that had "pet rock" written on them.
“Gold, Silver, money, salt, food, nor humans have absolute value.”
Let’s build on what I have argued up till now.
Mr. Rogers says that all value, human value, moral value, use-value, collectability, and so forth, are functions of “desire.” If I desire it, it becomes valuable. If a lot of people desire something, it becomes more valuable in relation to its scarcity – the more rare something is and the higher the demand, the greater the value.
I think we could safely call this the economic theory of value. Every form of value is reduced to an item for trade on a market of some sort. All “value [of whatever sort] is created”; by what? Desire. And I will add scarcity, to complete the picture as it is implied.
Certainly, the economic theory of value does apply to things with no inherent value – gold, silver, rocks, money. We assign these things an economic or a use-value. But it does seem odd to say that food has no inherent value for us as we have little choice about needing it to survive in a minimal way; its price may be determined by market forces, but at least some food seems to be desired because we need it – it is not so much valued because we desire it. Luxuries, such as caviar or goose liver pate, may work this way (we desire them, so they are valuable), but basic nutritional items seem to be minimally valuable to us first, and then we desire them because of their inherent value. We could say the same of breathable air and drinking water. We need them to live, so we desire them. So this is strange. It would appear there can be a difference with some things between value and price. We may have no choice about needing some things (value), even if we allow the market to determine the price.
What is more, where do these desires come from, the ones that create values? I established earlier in the argument about murder that “desire” and “emotion” or “feeling” seem interconnected. Mr. Rogers acts as if desire is, again, something primary with nothing previous to it or underlying it; and I will, again, disagree. What underlies desire is belief. If I believe something is valuable, I will desire and pursue it.
Let’s say I believe that being rich is very important. So I begin to pursue things designed to make me rich: I invest in ways that the returns begin to build wealth, for example. I may work harder to get overtime and help further my career. I choose my career with an eye towards making money – let’s say I go to school and become an investment banker instead of becoming a baker or an artist, as these latter two ways of living are much less likely to pay off financially. And so on.
If I had chosen to be an artist, I might see money in an entirely different way. Instead of believing being wealthy is very important, I may believe that personal expression is of utmost importance. Now, money appears important only inasmuch as it allows me to create my work and get it before a viewing public – it is useful, but not my end goal. Money buys my food, keeps me alive, buys my supplies, opens doors, but whether I have a little financial security or a great deal, I will continue to pursue my work.
If I choose to be a cloistered monk, money may mean nothing at all. I renounce any desire for worldly goods, including money so that I may pursue a life of prayer and contemplation – I see worldly wealth as an impediment to the progress of my soul. My monastery grows its own food and is as self-sufficient as possible. Any donations it receives are held in common and are used to buy necessities, such as medical supplies or books, and nothing else. If I could live without money entirely, I would gladly do so.
The sort of life I envision for myself starts to determine what I hold as valuable, and my beliefs about what is valuable determines my desires. Previous beliefs determine what I hold to be fitting forms of life for me to pursue in the first place.
It is obvious that humans can choose to desire anything because humans can have widely varying beliefs about what is valuable based on many factors, sometimes rational (chosen after careful consideration), sometimes accepted blindly due to familial or cultural factors (“My mother always wanted me to be a doctor because they make a lot of money.” “My father told me that being poor is the most shameful thing in the world.” “Priests were the most respected people in my community when I grew up.”)
So some desire wealth, some desire respect, some desire gourmet food, some desire to be surrounded by antiques, some desire a life of leisure, some desire a life of contemplation – and so on. The list of associated things that can be desired is as varied as there are people.
But it seems reasonable to ask: Is everything that is desired in fact desirable? Let’s say for the sake of argument that all possible things are desired equally – does that make them equally desirable?
Go back to our original small list of things some people desire: Gold, silver, money, salt, food. I have already raised a question whether one thing on this list is like the others, namely food. It seems we desire it because it almost always appears valuable to most all people under normal circumstances. Unless there is good reason (e.g. a hunger strike), we will not go without food, while we can easily live without gold, silver, money, and salt. In fact, gold, silver, money, and salt tend to take on an exchange value – they are used as means of exchange to obtain food and the like as, by custom, they were each used to represent time spent at labor and to make commerce possible. Other uses for things like silver and gold are adornment and in industrial processes – and these and other desires added to their scarcity make them valuable. We could just as well decide to value rocks (and what are gold, silver, and salt but rocks, in a sense).
But food seems different. It is not only desired, but desirable on its own, at least in a limited way.
And what about other things such as justice? Is justice valuable “because it is desired”? Or do we desire it because it is desirable (it has an inherent valuable, it is a desirable quality)? If no one on planet Earth valued justice, would it still be valuable; wouldn’t it be more valuable to be just than to be unjust? And notice another thing – the quality of being just cannot be bought or sold – it is a personal quality of character; it has no exchange value. As for being “useful,” justice often requires us to do very uncomfortable things or things that personally cost us or put us at a disadvantage socially.
Let’s say I live in a racist community and own a restaurant. Let’s also say I am a just person – I habitually treat others as they deserve to be treated. So I refuse to go along with the demands of my society – I serve everyone in my restaurant, regardless of race. This infuriates the majority; they boycott my business; the Klan burns a cross on my lawn; I receive threats; my children are beaten up and taunted at school; my wife mysteriously loses her job. Yet I am a better person than the majority of people in my town – I am a better example of what it is to be a human than those who hate other races simply because they are “different” and because the culture of the area traditionally expects racism of its inhabitants.
In hard cases, there may be every reason, according to the economic theory of value, to de-value justice and shy away from it. It can make life hard, difficult, to practice justice consistently. Yet, when we look at examples of just people in history, they often stand out as the individuals who did great things and advanced civilization in important ways, held things together when others fled – such as the Founding Fathers. We often remember unjust people – Hitler, for example, or Stalin – as individuals who did great damage to humanity and to nations and laws, people who committed horrendous moral crimes. At the very least, common people who live by justice often stand out as heroic and honorable, even in the everyday world.
Notice another thing. Justice, the act of being just, treating equals as equals and unequals as unequals, is an activity – it is a verb, not a noun (all virtues, in fact, are verbs – a doing). It isn’t a thing that can be obtained once, like a static piece of property, a chair or a piece of land or a gold ingot, and then hoarded away; we must use it constantly – or better, we must live up to it constantly in our thoughts and actions because it is a moral standard.
Further, if we attempt to practice justice with some further end in mind – say, I treat you as an equal in order to get you to grant me favors – our act ceases to be an instance of justice and becomes, probably, manipulation. I can either aim at being a just person in my actions or I can aim at gaining some other desired object (in this case, your favor); I can’t hold both as what I value and I can’t use the appearance of a just act and call it an actual act of justice. My motive is clear. I value the favor I wish to obtain, not justice and not my character – not who I am by being virtuous. I can’t “sell” or “buy” or “manipulate” using virtues. The virtues are simply valuable in themselves, ends in themselves – that is what it means for something to be a moral standard.
Being moral means “living life at a certain level of intensity”. It means living up to standards; it does not seem to involve, in its essence, accumulating things. It involves living a high quality life, being a good example of what it means to be human.
Courage is another virtue. It may even be easier to see how virtue works with courage. Aristotle defined virtue roughly as a “habit of soul” practiced consistently over a lifetime. The virtue must be the right one, chosen at the right time, and practiced at the right level of intensity – neither too much nor too little, as the situation demands. To meet threats of death and danger or threat and adversity, courage is the correct virtue in our arsenal. Extreme cases of threat, such as with soldiers, make the virtue stand out in high relief – a soldier ordered to advance on an enemy machine gun emplacement and eliminate it under heavy fire obviously must practice this virtue and in a way that is unmistakable. The soldier will have fear, he will want to flee or give up, but the practice of courage will drive him forward to pursue his duty and meet the objective even under the most harrowing circumstances – even if it means death, which he will face down and not turn from if necessary. And should he not die and succeed, the soldier will not merely be courageous once, but again and again, each time he is called upon to perform his task.
My point is this: There seems to be at least two groups of valuable things – things that become valuable because we assign them their value (e.g. gold, silver, rocks, salt, money, etc.) and things that have an inherent value of some sort (e.g. food, water, air, moral virtues). Things that take on a value because we desire them are things we want; things that have value on their own are things we need, whether we decide to want them or not.
Of the things we need, there seems to be a hierarchy. I need food to survive, or have comfort but it may be there are times when survival or comfort are not the moral things to pursue. If a soldier is fighting against tyranny, he may have to risk his life and survival in order to stand for moral values more important than survival. In my example above where the business owner in the racist community takes a stand against immorality, it may be far more important to stand for justice and equality than for comfort and even safety. Or, to put it another way, the soldier and the business owner are objectively of higher quality as human beings than people, in similar situations, who choose to serve their bellies and their safety.
Great figures in history, from Socrates to Jesus, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, have shown time and again that there are far worse things than death and far better things than safety and survival at all costs – survival is a fitting objective for an animal, but human excellence requires us to live for greater goods than another day of air, food, and water, even to the point of dying for those greater values and standards.
If that much is true, how much more true is it that living a truly moral life, a life lived at a high level of intensity in the pursuit of high standards outshines a life lived solely or mainly spent in the pursuit of “things” – those items that have no value except inasmuch as we choose to want them: gold, silver, money, salt, rocks, antiques, large houses, respect, honors, public power, and so forth?
This calls into question the entire enterprise of thinking that all values are the same because: some things are inherently valuable while others are not; some things are inherently valuable in a limited way (e.g. food) while others are inherently valuable in an unlimited way (e.g. virtues, moral standards); and there is an important difference between our wants and our needs that the libertarian “market theory of values” fails to capture or address.
Human Happiness As "Eudaimonia"
Aristotle and the Stoics use a term for the aim of a human life – the reason why we are here. It is “eudaimonia ,” which is often translated as “happiness.” This can be misleading for modern readers who are used to the psychological or hedonistic interpretation of happiness as “feeling good” or “pleasure.”
First, the word eudaimonia means in Greek, literally, the possession or quality of good “eu- ” spiritedness “daimon, daimonia.” And this can be understood as having the quality of peacefulness or being at peace, for one thing, and being a conduit of goodness in the world – one’s actions towards oneself and others make goodness present. It is happiness as a moral quality, not a psychological feeling such as “feeling good” or “experiencing pleasure.” A side effect of being good and doing good may be, at times, pleasure – but it is not the aim or reason for being and doing good.
There is an important reason why classical ethics does not equate happiness with pleasure: Pleasure comes and goes. It cannot be counted on. Moreover, to be a good and honorable person often requires us to do or endure things that are far from pleasurable (think of the examples of the soldier or the just business owner given earlier). Something about real happiness, moral happiness, must be something that is inseparable from who you are.
The great Stoic philosopher, Epicitetus, in the Discourses and the Enchiridion, asks us to make a mental list. He says make two columns. In the first column, place the things which can be taken away from you or controlled by others; in the second column, place the things over which you and you alone have control.
In the first column, we will find many things which we may want or desire – money, gold, good reputation, a fine house, a good job – but we will also find things such as our body (think of how little control we have over such things as when we are stricken with diseases and pains, from toothaches to cancer), our historical situation (when or where we were born), and even our physical freedom – even, in some sense, physical existence.
In the second column, we find just a few things: our ability to give and withhold assent; our ability to choose; our ability to decide which values we will pursue and avoid – mainly, our ability to reason and our ability to will.
The first column are “externals,” or things external to my will; the second things are, essentially, properly, me and mine – I cannot be separated from them and remain me. The first list is practically infinite; the second list is very short and finite.
Now, Epictetus taught that unhappiness and misery arises from assuming we have control over the things in the first list and attaching our lives and expectations too much to these things. Happiness (in the form of eudaimonia ) arises from understanding that only the things in the second category are within our control and taking responsibility for attaching our will to pursuing the virtues.
The first column is filled with many things we may prefer to have (want) – all things being equal, it would be desirable to have them rather than do without them. And to some degree we usually have some measure of influence over some things in that column (e.g. if I get a toothache, I may be able to go to the dentist; if I want money, I may be able to find a job); but there are no guarantees (e.g. I may have no insurance to cover a dentist or there may be no dentists where I live; there may be no jobs to be had because of an economic downturn). And some things are inevitable – I will die; if I live long enough, people I care for will die.
Happiness, for the Stoic, came in cultivating an attitude called apatheia . This word looks like our term “apathy” and, in fact is the root for our word, but in the Greek it does not mean “apathy.” In Stoic philosophy, apatheia meant “release from care” in the sense of not being moved around by our surroundings. As our situations come and go, as things in the first column change, we maintain our inner peace by not being overly attached to things and situations whose very nature is to change and be out of our control. We try, in other words, to maintain our integrity and our equilibrium no matter what life hands us, whether this is a difficulty or something preferable. We work to be ourselves, regardless of circumstances, and rise to meet whatever challenges come our way in a decent, reasonable, human way, virtuously and honorably, not overpowered by emotion, even to the last moment when faced with death.
My point here: Attachment to just any “values” will not bring either peace or real happiness, nor will it result in a good life, “good” meaning a high quality life, a life of higher quality than a life caught up in pursuit of limited “goods,” things we want but cannot control – things that often have no intrinsic value of their own (as Evan G. Rogers, speaking for the libertarian position has already admitted).
Desires can be disordered. If we do not desire things that lead to our moral well-being, which is the same thing as desiring the real standards which will make us good examples of humanity, we fail to live up to ourselves, who we are as people capable of reasoning and what we are capable of when we are at our best.
Peace, happiness come from attaching our lives to real, unlimited values, and self-control. It is the by-product of these. The libertarian account is far from rich enough to account for the concept of a “good life” – for the libertarian, a good life is whatever one chooses or desires; anything one desires to choose is just as good as anything else. All that matters is property rights and the interpretation of “happiness” as the pursuit of property – the reduction of ethics to economics
Are There Limits To The Concept of "Property"?
Back to the conversation with Evan G. Rogers:
[RVI]: "The problem is, Rand Paul/libertarians tend to think that freedom of speech and freedom to treat others any way one wishes, possibly short of killing them, is the same thing."
[Evan G. Rogers]: “I'm afraid this is incorrect. I don't think I've ever met a libertarian who thinks this. The golden rule of libertarianism is "You can do that with your property as you wish, so long as it doesn't interfere with others' right to do the same". No where in that golden rule is violence EVER even suggested - nor allowed.”
[RVI]: "Are “property rights” the only rights people have? Is it not possible to “do bad things” and violate far more and worse than a person’s property rights?"
[Evan G. Rogers]: “The right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness (locke wrote "property" instead of PoH), all qualify as property rights: You own your body, liberty is the freedom to do as you wish with your property, and ... property is property - the pursuit of happiness follows the golden rule listed above easily. (and vice versa)”
[RVI]: "Why are property rights absolute and not limited?"
[Evan G. Rogers]: “Property rights are what humans use to define theft, murder, and just about every other crime... It seems like a fantastic judge of 'evil' to me.
“Why would we want to limit property rights? especially if doing so is unconstitutional.”
Earlier in our discussion, I quoted Mr. Rogers as saying, “Nothing has absolute value. Absolute value is nonsense.” But here he says things such as: “Why would we want to limit property rights?” and, “The golden rule of libertarianism is "You can do that with your property as you wish, so long as it doesn't interfere with others' right to do the same".”
It seems there is at least one set of absolute (i.e. unlimited) values in the libertarian philosophy: ownership of property and freedom to do as you wish with one’s own property . For some reason – one that remains unclear – the right to property and the liberty to do as one wishes with it – is chosen as the foundational principle of libertarianism. Also noticeable, though the libertarian position claims to be subjectivistic or to “allow” subjectivism, it demands that one value remain unquestioned : property rights and the liberty to do as one wishes with it.
There is another oddity, the notion libertarianism has a “golden rule.” Where did this rule come from? Is it self-evident like saying a part cannot be greater than the whole of which it is a part? Manifestly, this is hardly the case. It requires a rational argument supported by evidence to command our acceptance. And is this rule really absolute (i.e. it is never to be violated) or is it just a relative rule of thumb that is useful, but may be abandoned at moments when it is not useful?
If it is the latter, the “rule” can be abandoned and a libertarian or libertarian system could be used to justify doing anything in the name of selfishness and taking others’ property or rights – a “might makes right” position.
If it is the former, libertarianism does have some absolute values and “absolute value” is not nonsense – yet the libertarian position wishes to smuggle in their version of values into moral decision making without doing the work of showing their version of morality is truly superior to alternative explanations (such as the one I have briefly attempted to suggest in this paper) by giving reasons and making a real argument showing why their moral beliefs are indeed absolute and not emotionally subjectivistic or randomly held in some other way. And I dispatched subjectivism earlier.
In other words: Why ought anyone value property rights at all? Does it have an inherent value or is it just valuable because we desire it? If it is the latter, this is no reason at all. If it does have an inherent value, then the libertarian has just admitted absolute values exist and will have to show why his version is better than one such as I have elaborated – why is private property and property rights a better “virtue” than something like justice?
I have already attacked the concept that “happiness” should be equated with “pleasure” in morality; and I have attacked the idea that “property” in the form of things that can be taken away from us is or should be the primary aim of good human life, properly conceived. I have given an argument why this is the case based both on the nature of things that only have “value” because we desire them and because of the real needs of humans as rational beings.
I am going to suggest that property and every other limited good or preferable thing only has “value” inasmuch as it serves human needs and is subordinated to human needs. This means that the “value” of property is inherently limited by the needs of human beings and the inherent value of human beings and their moral happiness (conceived of as eudaimonia ). The moment that property is treated as if it is more “valuable” than humans, or the moment that “freedom to do what I want with my property” allows the degradation of human beings (such as during segregation when restaurant owners were allowed to discriminate against black patrons because of skin color), then a wrong has been done. Justice has not been served, and property rights have been abused.
I think the case for libertarianism, in fact, gets worse, not better when we examine some of the ramifications, especially when the notion that a human owns him or herself as property – that humans are just property with a relative “value” determined by market forces – is put on greater display.
Evan G. Rogers himself provided a useful statement in this regard, in hopes of showing just how far the libertarian principle of freedom and property could be legitimately applied.
First, let’s recall a statement of Mr. Rogers’ I quoted earlier: “Gold, Silver, money, salt, food, nor humans have absolute value.” I think this is telling, and I avoided addressing it until now so that I could begin to build up a picture of what a proper conception of human life should look like. By contrast, the libertarian position, as stated, seems to be humans have no absolute value, humans are things among other things, and, going back to what I called the economic theory of values, humans take on value inasmuch as they are “desired” in some way – “property is property.” (One should already see a difficulty here: the libertarian wishes to say that private property is an absolute value and humans own themselves – thus humans should have a sort of confused but real absolute value even in this system; but I am going to take Mr. Rogers at his word and work with his examples and assumptions.)
Now, the libertarian position starts out by saying we own ourselves – one assumes the same way we own a piece of furniture or a TV dinner or a tube of lipstick. Not so strangely then, it follows we can dispose of ourselves as we would any other piece of property:
[RVI]: "You don’t own yourself. No one can own you."
[Evan G. Rogers]: “So, now, we're not only arguing against racists, but we're arguing against people who like to be dominated?
“Voluntary slavery is perfectly moral. If I choose to let someone else own me (perhaps just for a day), then it is 100% moral for me to do so (so long as they don't use me to infringe on other people's rights). If person likes to be dominated, then it should be allowed. You CAN be owned, and it is perfectly moral to be *voluntarily* owned.”
Perhaps, on the surface, this looks innocent enough, but lets play the ramifications out and see if our conclusions and the side issues they raise are truly all that innocent or reasonable.
First, let me be clear concerning what I am going to focus on. Domination, per se , has little to do with “slavery.” Usually, as I understand it, domination, S&M, and so forth involve role playing and safe words where the dominated can stop the activity whenever they are uncomfortable. It is a sort of “make believe.” So, obviously, I am not talking about that here. What I am going to talk about is “voluntary slavery,” selling or giving yourself away as if you are property that can be disposed of like any other thing. The libertarian position, as presented, is that this is “100% moral .”
Let’s say that you are starving, maybe in a third world country. I am a businessman with a factory that makes tennis shoes. I go to you and many others like you and make you an offer: sell yourselves into slavery for the rest of your lives to work in my factory. In return, I will feed you, clothe you, and house you in dorms. Being desperate, you and many others accept my offer – now you are slaves for the rest of your days and I own you.
What does this ownership mean? If the basis for private property rights is that I own myself, if I acquire you, by extension, I acquire your property. Let’s say each of my new slaves had a piece of land and a little house – these are now mine. I level the houses and expand my factory on the land.
But if slaves can still own property, that might raise many issues. You still own a house and land, but as my slave, I control where you go and when. I am unwilling to allow you to visit your house – other people move in and take over your place, use it for their own. So you “own” property, but have no use of it in this case. Is this really ownership since the freedom to determine its use is now entirely outside your control?
What if you can’t pay taxes on your land, since you make no money. The land is seized. If I can’t keep up with my responsibilities as regards my property, do I really own it? Either way, whether I can’t own property or can under this libertarian model, my free use of my own belongings seems at the whim of my owner. The point of ownership seems moot.
Let’s say you are a woman, now a slave in my factory. I, as your owner, decide I want you to get pregnant for whatever reason. You don’t like this idea. Since I own you, can I make you get pregnant – by in vitro fertilization, by forcing you to allow men to sleep with you (rape), by impregnating you myself (also rape)? Maybe I make some DVDs of these sexual activities and sell them. Do you have any grounds to protest? Since you no longer own yourself, it appears, at least on the surface, that I, as your owner, can do this if I wish, regardless of whether you wish to cooperate or not.
But let’s pretend that, somehow, libertarianism could be twisted around in some sort of logical pretzel to prevent this or disapprove of it (I don’t think it can and remain consistant; but we will pretend for the sake of argument). Let’s say you were pregnant when I bought you. Now you are my slave for life and pregnant. Who will own the child once it is born?
In fact, in the libertarian world, who owns children at all, whether the parents are slaves or “free”?
If we say the child owns herself when she is born, what right does a parent or anyone have to ever tell a child what to do? When the child begins resisting at age 2 or so, what right have I, as a parent, to tell them “Yes, you must eat nutritious food,” or “No, you may not put your hands in fire”? Worse than that, if a child owns herself, what responsibility do I have to do anything for her? As an infant, she is hungry. The mother refuses to breastfeed her and the father refuses to get the bottle. They cannot be bothered for whatever reason. Does the child have the right to expect to be cared for by anyone other than herself – any more than I do? If I, an adult, am hungry, starving, in the libertarian world, what right do I have to expect anyone at all to ever help me? Help is completely voluntary – there is no virtue, such as care or mercy, that would prompt me to rise to the occasion and assist someone in need of aid. So, if I, an adult, have no right to ever expect assistance, what right has a child to expect assistance either if she owns herself? Isn’t she fully responsible for herself just like everyone else?
Maybe the libertarian would rush to say something like this: If you get pregnant, there is a contract between you and the child that you will take care of it or that you will find someone who will. I don’t think this will do. First, how do you make a contract with an unwilling second party or a party that cannot give assent? An infant cannot make contracts or enter into them. If they could, why couldn’t I expand this amorphous definition of “contract” and say I am making contracts with people in comas to harvest their organs? People in comas cannot give assent, either. But maybe the libertarian would want to say that the child is a special case – I am under obligation to care for them, at which point I will demand to know where, in free use of property and the right to property, the libertarian suddenly located weighty moral terms such as “obligations” (which are involuntary duties) and “care” (a virtue that has nothing to do with being right because it is desired).
The alternative under this system would seem to be that children are property. They belong to the parent. But if they are property, they can be disposed of like any other property – they can be bought and sold. They can be ignored, abused – physically, sexually, mentally, and even starved to death (or whatever manner of death one wishes to impose) with impunity. Evan G. Rogers has said “property is property.” So the treatment of one sort of property should be analogous to any other. If I choose to set myself on fire, the libertarian should say this is fine as I am only harming my own property. But, following this logic, if I set my child on fire, if a child is my property, I am still only harming my own property – never mind the fact that the child would be screaming and wailing in pain till it dies of shock and asphyxiation.
Back to the example of selling oneself into slavery. When last we left off, a woman was pregnant and my slave. She gives birth. Under the libertarian system, who owns the baby? If the baby owns itself, all the problems mentioned earlier apply. Plus, as the mother’s owner, I could prevent the mother from caring for the child – and even if there was such a thing as a “libertarian contractual obligation” (which I strongly doubt and see no basis for), this was negated the moment the mother sold herself into slavery and gave up her self-control.
If the child is owned by the parent, if the parent is a slave, it is entirely arguable that the child, when born, belongs to the parent’s owner. If it is born into slavery, it is arguable that the child, also, is a slave at birth – according to a libertarian interpretation of reality. I have given the reasons for this reasoning above.
Even if, somehow, this was not the case and the child was not a slave upon birth, the owner is under no obligation to raise the child as a free person. If the child stays with the mother, it will grow up in slavery. How will the mother feed the child as it grows? She has no money and the contract was to feed, clothe, and house only the mother when I, the slave-owner, bought her. Perhaps a deal can be worked out. If you wish your child to live, I might say, it is simple; the child must sell herself into slavery, too.
Perhaps generation upon generation will live and die under slavery, all “100% moral ” we are left to suppose. In any case, there is nothing in what we have been presented in the libertarian position that would militate against something like this – something many of us of us would think of as an atrocity.
I can imagine someone saying that this is a fantasy of mine – libertarianism would never really have to sanction an atrocity. I will now quote an article from Wikipedia that is a summary of a world-famous case that happened in Germany a few years ago,. It involves two men, Armin Meiwes and Bernd Jürgen Brandes:
“Looking for a willing victim, Meiwes posted an advertisement at a website, The Cannibal Cafe, whose disclaimer mentions the distinction between reality and fantasy. Meiwes's post stated that he was "looking for a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed". Bernd Jürgen Brandes then answered the advertisement. Many other people responded to the advertisement, but backed out; Meiwes did not attempt to force them to do anything against their will.
“As is known from a videotape the two made when they met on March 9, 2001 in Meiwes's home in the small village of Rotenburg, Meiwes amputated Brandes's penis and the two men attempted to eat the penis together before Brandes was killed. Brandes had insisted that Meiwes attempt to bite his penis off. This did not work, though Meiwes was able to burst both of Brandes's testicles by biting them. Ultimately, Meiwes used a knife to remove Brandes's penis. Brandes apparently tried to eat some of his own penis raw, but could not because it was too tough and, as he put it, "chewy". Meiwes then sautéed the penis in a pan with salt, pepper, wine and garlic, he then fried it with some of Brande's fat but by then it was too burned to be consumed. He then chopped it up into chunks and fed it to his dog According to journalists who saw the video (which has not been made public), Brandes may already have been too weakened from blood loss to actually eat any of his penis. Meiwes read a Star Trek book for three hours, while Brandes lay bleeding in the bath. Meiwes apparently gave him large quantities of alcohol and pain killers, 20 sleeping pills and a bottle of schnapps, and finally killed him in a room that he had built in his house for this purpose, the Slaughter Room. After stabbing Brandes to death in the throat, he hung the body on a meathook and tore chunks of flesh from it; he even tried to grind the bones to use as flour. The whole scene was recorded on the two-hour video tape. Meiwes ate the body over the next 10 months, storing body parts in his freezer under pizza boxes and consuming up to 20 kg of the flesh.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armin_Meiwes
For most of us and for most theories of ethics in the West, this is a clear instance of immorality, or, at the very least, it is highly arguable that it is. But I fail to see how a libertarian would argue that there is the least thing wrong in what happened here – other than something a bit distasteful at the most. One man freely gave himself to another to be tortured and eaten alive until he bled out – and then his remains were reduced to food. Was this a good use of their lives? Do these two people stand out as examples of human excellence or as symptoms of depravity in treating one another as “things,” not persons?
It would strike most of us, I think, as somehow morally disturbing if we carried forward the full ramifications of the idea that there is no qualitative difference between a human being and any other “thing.” Human beings are not like things – we have the capacity to reason, to choose, to recognize values and to create a future for ourselves. We have an interior life. A “thing” is something we can choose to use or manipulate for our own ends; a human is off limits to being manipulated and treated as a thing. Because a human is not property and cannot morally e treated as such. Property only makes sense in reference to a human being for whom it is useful and meaningful – property (a thing) means nothing to itself or in itself and has no capacity to value itself or wonder about the meaning of anything. As we have already discussed, there is an entire category of things that have value only inasmuch as they are meaningful and useful or desired by human beings.
But a human has meaning and value even when other humans do not recognize her value, desire her, or choose to contemplate her meaning as an individual or a human – and even if she does not recognize or understand her own value. We arrive with this value, which is akin to the value of the virtues. A human arrives in part as a network of needs – and what we need more than air, food, or water is truth, goodness, beauty to live well, to live as a human. The human arrives as a sort of ideal to be lived up to and a project to be completed – we are always working to be ourselves and each day we do this, better or worse, exerting more or less effort in this direction by our choices. And all choices are not equal in value; some rise to objective moral standards and some fail to do so.
A man who mistakes another for food and a man who mistakes his masochistic sexual desires for the highest aim of existence to the point he is willing to become another’s meal have completely missed what it is to be human: It is not to use others and be used. Even if my readers disagree with the tradition of morality I represent, I think it is more reasonable, given my arguments, that human beings have a different and higher meaning than simply how they may be used by others.
Property, then, only has meaning for humans. We assign property value, but our value is assigned by no one and does not involve something that can be bought or sold or given away or abandoned or violated with moral impunity. It pre-exists the value of things and makes those lesser, relative values possible. Property rights, when they cease to be useful for humans, or are misused to treat some segment of humanity as less than human, have overstepped their general usefulness and must be reigned in – as we did with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation – contrary to what Rand Paul and other libertarians wish to claim.
At this point, I am going to reiterate something I said in the original conversation:
"The problem is, Rand Paul/libertarians tend to think that freedom of speech and freedom to treat others any way one wishes, possibly short of killing them, is the same thing."
Except now I will add: It also seems that, pushed to its limits, libertarian principles could easily be used to excuse things like slavery, rape, not caring for and raising children (or others who have no capacity to care for themselves), murder, placing property and things before the value of human beings, and general misanthropy, greed, and encourages one to not take proper care for one’s own life and value, much less anyone else’s.
Morality And Law
Evan G. Rogers, speaking for the libertarian position, claims to be opposed to “legislating morality.” His position can be summed up in this sentence he wrote at one point in our discussion: “The "legislating morality" thing just opens up too many chances for abuse. If X can be outlawed on private property, then so can A, B, and C.”
But, as I’ve already pointed out, a commitment to absolute property rights and freedom to do with property whatever one wishes is the real core of libertarian ethics as presented. To quote Mr. Rogers again:
“Property rights are what humans use to define theft, murder, and just about every other crime... It seems like a fantastic judge of 'evil' to me.
“Why would we want to limit property rights? especially if doing so is unconstitutional.”
The libertarian is, in reality, more than happy to legislate using morality – so long as the interpretation of ethics is his own and no one else’s. He is willing to have everyone believe whatever he wishes about ethics, define it and dismiss it all as “subjectivism,” just as long as his minimalist theory of ethics is allowed to control legislation and government.
Notice what is said in the above quote: theft, murder, “just about every other crime ” is allegedly defined by an appeal to property rights, and property rights allegedly have no limits. One may not define property in such as way that it has any real limits (although, in an inconsistent argument, Mr. Rogers also argued that there is no such thing as an “absolute value”; if property has no real limits and is used as the standard used to define seemingly everything moral and legal, it would appear to be an “absolute value “: either property is or isn’t an absolute value – it is incoherent to pretend it can be treated as both).
Again, Mr. Rogers really has no problem with legislating morality – as long as it’s libertarian morality. This should not be surprising, as a part of law in the West has always been based on morality. I argued this in my essay, “Rand Paul, Libertarianism, and Legislating Morality.” I clarified this in the conversation with Mr. Rogers:
“Morality has been the basis for law in the West since Greek times -- it is not some radically new idea I'm proposing here. It may be new to you, but it is not particularly innovative. The entire Constitution and Declaration rest on a very particular morality -- it isn't entirely Locke-ian, either (hence Jefferson talks about the foundation of the nation being, in part, "pursuit of happiness," not "ownership of private property"). Virtue and what we now call virtue ethics was the main position of the Founders, not some sort of "ethics of capitalism," or "ethics of egoism and selfishness." That would be an extreme re-writing of history.” [RVI]
To be sure, our Founders were Classical Liberals, which means they put a great deal of emphasis on private property and limitation of governmental power – these were powerful new ideas in the Enlightenment. But they put an equal amount of emphasis on virtue – virtue was to limit and guide the use of property. Read the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin (arguably two of the most influential thinkers of the Founder’s movement); a similar thing goes for Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense was one of the most widely read pamphlets in the colonies. In Paine’s later writings, in fact, we find many ideas, such as progressive income tax and what we call now “socialized medicine” and the rights of workers as a limiting force against the capitalists who controlled the businesses the workers labored in. These were also Enlightenment ideas. Movements toward a more libertarian approach to government and the reduction of public morality and legislation to purely economic interests were more a product of the 19th c. than the 18th, and the history of the late 19th c. through the majority of the 20th c. was an effort to reign in the idea of absolute property rights and the belief one could “do just as one wills” with their property, regardless who is injured or oppressed (such as by segregation).
Things like theft, murder, lying under oath, extortion, fraud, and so forth, are not made illegal because property rights or only property rights are somehow violated – they are made illegal because society cannot exist, function, or function well if we allow people to do them. There is always a portion of society that has no capacity to self-regulate, that has no self-control or abide by a rational moral code without threat of punishment. I cannot take my pistol (private property) and rob you of your money (private property), not because I will injure your property in doing so, but because it is unjust to do so (I injure both you and myself in being unjust) and because society will dissolve if we allow this. Those and the like are the moral principles at work. Some of the law is made based on these principles.
This is not to say that all of morality can be legislated; I have not claimed that. Morality and positive law (law made by legislation) are two different things. The former makes humans good and serves to make the individual human will and actions good; the latter keeps humans within certain acceptable bounds and requires them, at times, to do things for the benefit of their community and nation – and it attempts to guarantee that those who transgress against the law and the peace are taken off the street, perhaps reformed, perhaps not.
And I am not claiming all laws are based on morality. I am making no claim that, for example, there is such a thing as a “moral speed limit” – is it 55, 56, 57 miles per hour? -- or a way to make certain days off limits to what we do every other day (such as Blue Laws in the South that disallow the purchase of alcohol or disallow the purchase of alcohol on Sunday), or anything else of the sort.
I am just simply arguing that some laws are based on morality, that the morality must be purely rational (not religious, as the state is not in the business of theology and theology is not in the business of making law in America – and when it is allowed to, it is to our detriment, e.g. censorship, Blue Laws, legal favoritism to religious groups, all against the First Amendment). We must be able to make laws worked out by making rational arguments to support them, and inasmuch and when moral arguments enter into making law in the legislature or interpreting law in the courts, the moral arguments appealed to must involve concepts all people can give rational assent to (i.e. not articles of faith).
Morality, as the basis of some laws, is capable of limiting private property in some cases and preventing abuses and guiding us in the proper use of property within limits.
Mr. Rogers is convinced that, if we create laws based on morality, somehow this will inevitably lead to theocracy – extremist religious morality, horrible misuses of rational arguments, pure rhetoric will lead us down an inevitable path to tyranny (or at least horrible and oppressive laws). For one thing, I argued that the separation of church and state in the First Amendment, upheld in the Supreme Court, acts as a barrier to many purely theological incursions into legislation.
[RVI]: "If there cannot be an “established religion,” that means there cannot be a state church"
[Evan G. Rogers]: “BUT THE 1ST AMENDMENT ONLY BANS THE FEDERAL GOV'T FROM ESTABLISHING A RELIGION! THE STATES ARE FREE TO DO SO!!”
This is wrong. Under our system of government, which is the Federalist system (not the old Confederation of States that existed prior to the Constitution). Power is shared between the states and the Federal Government that limits what a state can and cannot do. I will quote an article on About.com on Federalism:
“The U.S. Constitution establishes a government based on "federalism," or the sharing of power between the national, and state (and local) governments. Our power-sharing form of government is the opposite of "centralized" governments, such as those in England and France, under which national government maintains total power.
“While each of the 50 states has its own constitution, all provisions of state constitutions must comply with the U.S. Constitution. For example, a state constitution cannot deny accused criminals the right to a trial by jury, as assured by the U.S. Constitution's 6th Amendment.
“Under the U.S. Constitution, both the national and state governments are granted certain exclusive powers and share other powers.” http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/rightsandfreedoms/a/federalism.htm
So, no, the states are not free to establish a religion, any more than the Federal Government can because the “state constitutions must comply with the U.S. Constitution.” One can rest assured, if it was allowed, at the very least the Southern states would have established religions that ran the states by now and Utah would establish Mormonism as the official religion. The fact these things did not happen, at the very least, ought to strongly suggest that Mr. Rogers interpretation is flawed.
But the fact is that, in a representative democracy such as ours, bad arguments, irrationality, and all manner of abuses can become, improperly, the basis of very bad laws. This is simply the problem that an uneducated or uncaring or emotionalistic public is free to elect even unqualified minds and ideologues to positions of power – the problem is not the use of morality to guide or act as a foundation for some laws some of the time; the problem is the quality of the legislators elected.
And, as I’ve shown, even the libertarian position can be used to justify or allow what most of us would think of as terrible things: voluntary slavery, rape of a slave, ownership of children as property, no reason to take care of children, and voluntary involvement in cannibalism and murder, among many other things that come to mind. I have argued and think I have shown that, not only could libertarianism be misused, but even using its ideas consistently would lead to bad laws and immoral actions. I do not see that a society of libertarians could be one that lasts long, produces much of genuine value, or could even maintain the cultural inheritance bequeathed us by long, hard centuries of genuine intellectual labor. A civilization of pure libertarians seems a contradiction in terms – a people determined to live, as far as possible, without ethics and any values beyond economic ones.
Mr. Rogers gave me some advice: “Avoid the issue [of legislating using morality], just let people be people. ” (Brackets, italics mine.)
The problem here is that Mr. Rogers and most libertarians I have ever encountered do not understand that I and my moral tradition are completely in favor of “letting people be people.” But that is just it: I expect people to live up to the privilege of being people , not pretend they or others are mere objects, things to be manipulated or to manipulate, buy sell, or otherwise abuse. Being a person is not an easy task and it is one we all fail at, and often. But if we do not try, if we do not wonder after what it means, precisely, to properly be human and assume it just means doing whatever we wish as long as we do not violate “property rights” – we miss the entire point of being a person. There is much more to living a good human life than this, and much more to making proper laws than this.
I think I have proven my case.
Richard Van Ingram 6 June 2010
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