Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Morally Conservative and Politically Libertarian

That's what I am. Edward C. Feser says that it is an illogical position:

Suppose you're a contractarian libertarian. Then you think that all moral rules derive, roughly, from what all rational agents would agree to. But not everyone would agree to redistribution, so that can't be morally required. And not all people would agree either to rules against prostitution, smoking crack, etc.—which means these things can't be considered wrong either. So, not only should there be no law against them, but they can't be regarded even as immoral. This sort of libertarianism is therefore strictly incompatible with moral conservatism. And some libertarians who take the contractarian approach (e.g. Jan Narveson) explicitly acknowledge this.

Feser is being slippery here, but like many conservative critics of libertarianism, he's confusing libertarianism and libertinism. I agree that prostitution and smoking crack are wrong. I also think that gorging on Twinkies all day and engaging in pre-marital sex are wrong. Furthermore, I think that worshipping gods other than the one true God revealed in Scripture is morally wrong, since it contradicts God's commandments.

However, it does not directly harm me if another person sells his body for sex, smokes crack, eats a horrendous diet of junk food, or bows down before false gods. Since he, as an individual, has absolute soverignty over his own life, it is his right to engage in immoral behavior.

My values extend to my own self, and do not force themselves on others. That's good, because in a society where it is acceptable to force my values on others, other people could force their values on me. The consequence might be that I could be forced to commit prostitution, take drugs, and worship false gods because in a politically conservative society, we've legitimized the use of force to enact social change.

But anyway, Feser is talking about libertinism, which is a moral philosophy that says that there are no moral limits to personal behavior. Libertarianism, however, is exclusively a political philosophy which limits the use of force in a society. It is morally silent.

Now suppose your libertarianism is grounded instead in some sort of Aristotelian or natural law moral theory. Then our rights derive from the role they play in helping us to flourish as rational social animals, fulfill our natural end, or something of that sort. But in that case it is very hard to see how there could, strictly speaking, be a right to do what is contrary to moral virtue. If we grant, for example, that smoking crack is contrary to virtue, and that rights only exist insofar as they facilitate our ability to master the virtues, then there can be no such thing as a right to smoke crack. There may, of course, nevertheless be all sorts of prudential reasons why we might wonder whether it is a good idea to have government forbid or regulate drug use. But what we can’t say in this case is what libertarians usually want to say—that a government that forbade you to smoke crack would be violating your rights. And this is, indeed, why many libertarians don’t like Aristotelian and natural law approaches to arguing for rights—they fear that such attempts, if followed out consistently, will end up denying that we can really have a right to many things libertarians want to claim we have a right to. [emphasis added]

Feser is arguing that the morality of a chosen action and the practicality of it are philosophically separable. This is his key premise, and it is wrong. After all, we say that smoking crack is immoral because it leads to the death of the crackhead. We say that casual sex is immoral because it leads to STDs and a loss of intimacy between husband and wife. We say that worshipping false gods is immoral because it leads to damnation. We premise moral right and wrong based upon the practical implications of moral and immoral actions. And, in the same vein, we say that an individual has a right to rule of his own body and property because the practical implications of ignoring these rights leads to totalitarianism.

So in a libertarian society, we ask "Which morals should be compelled through the use of government force, and which shall not?" The answer is that government will enforce moral standards on actions which impact nonconsenting adults.

Now this raises all sorts of questions, but it will suffice to make the point. I would argue that any attempt to give a moral foundation to libertarianism (e.g. utilitarian, Lockean) will inevitably end up either favoring moral conservatism to such an extent that it fails to count as genuinely “libertarian” at all (since it will end up denying that we can, strictly speaking, have a “right” to do many of the things libertarians want to claim we have a right to), or it will succeed in being genuinely libertarian, but in a way that rules out the possibility of moral conservatism. In short, there is no coherent way to be both morally conservative and strictly libertarian. “Fusionism,” the attempt to fuse libertarianism and conservatism, is incoherent—whatever my younger self might have said to the contrary. You can still be a conservative who strongly favors the free market and severe limitations on government power. And you can, as a conservative, doubt for pragmatic reasons whether paternalistic regulations are a good idea. But no conservative can hold that it is strictly an injustice to outlaw what is immoral, that there is “a right to do what is wrong.” You cannot be both a conservative and a libertarian. [emphasis added]

I can. Now, once again, my moral conservativism is fused directly with my Christian faith. I have sinned, and sinned greviously. For the most part, I hurt myself with this sin, flailing about in immorality. Before I became a Christian, I had pre-marital sex. I'm glad that I didn't go to jail for it. I even once visited a go-go bar. I'm glad that I didn't go to jail for it. I drank. I'm glad that I didn't go to jail for it. I smoked a hookah. I'm glad that I didn't go to jail for it. I was disrespectful, even rude, to my parents. I'm glad that I didn't go to jail for it.

What do all of these sins have in common? Besides, of course, being morally wrong, they only affected myself and consenting adults. God worked these sins out of me, and I would have been outraged if anyone else had interfered, let alone punish me, for what went on between me, other consenting adults, and God was my business alone. And rightfully so, because the society that punishes private, personal sins, will lock up everyone.

Is this the world that political conservatives want?

I would add that if you are morally conservative, you should advocate a libertarian polity if no other reason than to maintain your own liberties when you are out of power. If you have a conservative government that enforces conservative moral values, all well in good. But the consequence is that it valides the notion that one of the purposes of government is to enforce personal morality. Later, this government is out of power, and a liberal/libertine one is in charge. It compels you to engage in immoral personal activity in large part because of the political foundation that you have built.


Jeff the Baptist said...

I don't exactly agree or disagree with you, but I find your arguments unpersuasive.

As a practical matter, an individual with drug addiction is not a problem for the government to deal with. However when a large percentage of the population is suffering from drug addiction, contributing little to society while consuming large amounts of resources, you have a recipe for social and economic disaster. China had this problem at the turn of the 20th century. The way they solved it was by criminalization with very harsh penalties.

Similarly we probably have another STD epidemic on the horizon because of current permissive sexual practices. Since medical care is mandatory and has to be provided, the cost of treatment for these people is going to be spread across the entire consumer base, not just the STD afflicted.

Your "this personal problem doesn't effect me" assumption has big flaws when serious problems start getting common. The truth is that all these little things do effect you, just not very much individually. Once you aggregate them, the costs mount.

I suppose the libertarian solution would be to hang people out to dry in terms of medical care and support. Either pay for it yourself, find someone who will, or be screwed. But this isn't a solution that is especially compassionate or appeals to society in general.

John said...

Jeff, shame on you for forcing me to deal with reality!

Yes, there are aggregate problems here, and perhaps government intervention is warranted.

Such intervention should occur with extreme reluctance and, in the case of federal involvement, Constitutional authorization.

Since medical care is mandatory and has to be provided, the cost of treatment for these people is going to be spread across the entire consumer base, not just the STD afflicted.

Well, then the problem is that medical care is mandatory. In this case, the body politic is suffering undue financial hardship because of government intervention.

I suppose the libertarian solution would be to hang people out to dry in terms of medical care and support. Either pay for it yourself, find someone who will, or be screwed. But this isn't a solution that is especially compassionate or appeals to society in general.

How is it compassionate to take other people's money (i.e. taxation) and spend it on social welfare? Stealing is stealing, even if it is for a charitable cause.

As for me, if federal spending were restricted to Constitutionally-authorized activities and the income tax eliminated, I would double my tithe. At least. There would be a safety net for the poor and the suffering, and I'll bet that it will be more effective than any government program.

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
M. Simon said...

Ah, drug addiction.

It will probably surprise you to learn that people take pain relievers to relieve pain. Now why this should be illegal in a Christian country is beyond me. But there you have it.

Drugs are a symptom not a cause. The cause in clinical terms is PTSD. Since there is no known cure the best we can do is to make the patient comfortable. i.e. give them drugs.

Addiction or Self Medication?


Genetic Discrimination

Cannabinoids - the Key to many Pains?

Big Mac - heroin attack

Capitalism, Pain and the War on Drugs

PTSD Pot Alcohol & Substance Abuse

You cannot cure pain with harsh penalties. In fact such penalties may actually increase the demand for drugs. We do know the demand for drugs goes up in a war zone. And of course our response to the "drug epidemic" is to turn certain sections of our towns into war zones.

The brilliance of such manuvers is amazing. But then our government's socialist Cocain Price Support and Gang and Terrorist Finance Program is nothing short of brilliant in any case.

What is so amusing is that the most virulent anti-socialists support this totally socialist program.

How the mighty are dupped.

Way cool.