Friday, December 3, 2010

Conservatism vs. Liberty

I was provided these links in an email:

The sender said, "You rarely comment on the Conservative critiques of Rand. You focus more on the Leftist ones which is understandable. I was curious what you think of these arguments."

I'm the sort of "intellectual elitist" that is so disgusted with the Right as an (anti-)intellectual phenomenon, that I rarely expect to see much of any merit from those quarters. I figure that if the "conservatives" would crawl out of their intellectual cave, they'd stop being conservatives and be Jeffersonian or classical liberals instead. (I don't mind the term "libertarian" personally, but there's an awesome amount of baggage with that term when used in or around Objectivist circles. Rand's policy was to put the term in "scare quotes," indicating that she regarded it as an anti-concept - not at all surprising with terms applied in a political context. Me, I just take the term in its ordinary connotation and conclude that it's a matter of plain common sense to be a libertarian.) As it is, the history of the "conservative" movement starting with William F. Buckley is a disgrace to rational values. Buckley's monstrously incompetent treatment of Rand sets the tone. There's also that pesky matter of how religion of the sort embraced by Rightists is downright fucking toxic to rational values.

Once in a while, though, we get something resembling a carefully-reasoned critique of Jeffersonian-liberal values. Perhaps the most advanced critique goes under the heading of "The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism." The above-provided links are a variant on the basic theme.

First, I'd like to point out the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on the subject of physical force, this excerpt in particular:

An attempt to achieve the good by physical force is a monstrous contradiction which negates morality at its root by destroying man’s capacity to recognize the good, i.e., his capacity to value. Force invalidates and paralyzes a man’s judgment, demanding that he act against it, thus rendering him morally impotent. A value which one is forced to accept at the price of surrendering one’s mind, is not a value to anyone; the forcibly mindless can neither judge nor choose nor value. An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes. Values cannot exist (cannot be valued) outside the full context of a man’s life, needs, goals, and knowledge.

Now, to quote the last two paragraphs of the first link:

The bottom line: the dictum, "Do whatever you like, so long as you don't hurt anyone else," does not suffice to order a society, because it does not suffice to order an individual life. There is a complex nexus of feedback relations between individual lives and the social order, of which the legal order is an aspect. Individual lives depend upon society, and constitute it. As they go, so it goes; and as it goes, so do they. To say this is no more than to say that if we are to live, we must do so together, and so must order our lives in respect to each other, and to our joint prosperity--not just across space, but across time.

Ordering lives across time, across generations, is the function of tradition. Libertarianism presupposes a vibrant moral tradition, that has informed a people from the bottom up, so that the net result of their unsupervised activities is social harmony, justice, prosperity. Where such a tradition perdures, the libertarian project can perhaps succeed. Where not, not. If you have no tradition, you have no nexus of support for your individual agency, and thus no true freedom to organize your activities toward your own ends. Rather, you have only raw lurching from one dire exigency to the next, with no notion of a fundamental moral order to inform your deliberations. Randian atheism demolishes the ontological basis for morality, and so cannot but destroy moral tradition, thus preventing the option of libertarianism. "If there is no God, then all is permitted"--including force, and fraud.

First, this part about everything being permitted if there is no God is intellectually disreputable and automatically creates suspicion about the author's intellectual caliber. The Euthyphro Dilemma suffices to show what's wrong with a divine-command basis for ethics. So already we have a fundamentally mistaken context informing this rationale for force - a faulty metaphysics, epistemology and meta-ethics. One can only guess how corrosive the effects of such a context will be in any particular case, but once you do go into flights of epistemological fancy on matters such as the basis of morality, who knows where the epistemological flights of fancy might pop up next.

(This is just one example of why conservatives have such a low reputation amongst philosophers.)

Anyway, putting aside the fucked-up underlying context, we have a seemingly serious criticism of the liberal ethos; it's nothing new, however. It's a reiteration of a standard Communitarian critique of liberalism that's been going through academia since the '70s, in response first and foremost to John Rawls's theory of justice. Now, readers of my blog might remember the time I slammed Rawls for his lack of respect for philosophical hierarchy - namely, how there's no deeper structure to his political philosophy. Rawls more than readily plays right into that criticism in such later essays as "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical." (Rand would just flip out if she heard of that title, wouldn't she?) The Communitarian criticism coincides with a rise in Virtue Ethics in the past few decades. An ethics of virtue would constitute part of the deeper structure but Rawls doesn't view virtue as being the concern of politics. (This is only slightly weird given that justice itself is a virtue. But Rawls's first statement about justice is that it's the first virtue of social institutions - consistent with his regarding justice as a political-level concern.)

Now, is virtue a concern of politics? Does it have any role at all in determining the basic social structure of socio-political liberalism? The relation between morality proper and politics is not an easy one to explain in a very brief space; for a lengthier treatment there is my article "Egoism and Rights". The gist of the relation is that man requires the use of reason to live qua man. Reason is a volitional capacity and does not operate under coercion. Under coercion you aren't the author of your actions; you've been effectively deprived of moral agency. To subject a reason-having being to force is, to that extent, to treat them not as a reason-having being, and to attempt to force the person into "good" is a contradiction for the reasons Rand explained. For a human being, the good must be chosen. (Think about the moral conscience of A Clockwork Orange.)

Now, one place where the conservative proposal to force human beings into virtue fails, is the failure to identify the place of force within the philosophical hierarchy. Why should force ever enter into any moral picture? What, if anything, is the proper use of force? Rand or a Jeffersonian liberal says that it enters the picture at the level of self-defense. Now, just observe the weasel-version of the concept of "self-defense" as used in the conservative pro-force proposal. "Society" would have a vital interest in forcing individuals as a matter of "self-defense." Apparently this is so whether or not we see society as deriving its moral value from the value provided to individuals.

(I take it for granted here that society is not prior to individuals in any morally-relevant sense and that moral directives of any sort derive from the living-requirements of individuals. If we don't even have that context, then the gap between the pro-force view and the individual-liberty view is simply too radical. We're assuming here that the individual-liberty view is being called into question on the grounds that it ultimately undercuts the best interest of individuals.)

The philosophical hierarchy being flouted in this instance concerns the distinction between "social" and "political." Social relationships are not the same as political ones. In the hierarchy of moral justification, sociality precedes political relations. The political relations are those relations formed for the purpose of regulating the use of force. Social relationships as such are not.

So, let's say that someone does non-virtuous things that or to his or her own detriment. Sure enough, this non-virtuous behavior does abuse the goodwill of the people - family, friends, community - who have a rational stake in the person's well-being. But having a rational stake in something doesn't warrant initiating force against someone to obtain or promote the value in question. There are plenty of non-coercive means that family, friends and community can use to deal with the person's self-detrimental behavior. The idea of resorting to force is pathological - perhaps a holdover from olden-times when force was a "natural" part of human life and its evil not recognized or understood.

As for "effects on society" of individual behavior, that's nebulous and could lead to who-knows-what. If we're going to appeal to a commonsensical guide like the common law, on the other hand, we need to establish demonstrable causal relationships between an individual's behavior and injury or damages to an identifiable victim. There had better be a really fucking good reason for restricting someone's freedom of action - and, sorry, "effects on society" doesn't cut it.

I mentioned above the justificatory hierarchy with respect to individuals, society, and polity. In that hierarchy, individuals precede the rest, as it is individual lives that are being acted out by moral agents. As Norton in Personal Destinies shows, ethical priority lies in self-actualization. This means that, even if we come into the world embedded in social relationships and are partly nurtured by those relationships, individuals are ethically prior to society. The common law reflects this individualism in regard to social causes and effects.

For socio-political purposes it is axiomatic that people have the right to live their own lives as they choose. They own their own lives. By what right does a society - a group of people - force a person other than in self-defense?

The second link above provides little over and above the first one, but I want to add that Rand does offer a comprehensive vision of life that the run-of-the-mill libertarians do not. That comprehensive vision - in addition to a socio-political prohibition on the use of initiatory force - endorses an entire ethical system that defines virtuous behavior for individuals, and rests its ethical conclusions on a base of reason, the principles of which are defined by epistemology. If we envision a society based on Randian values, it is a peaceful, prosperous, rational, cooperative, benevolent, humane society - and, by necessary consequence, it is a society that eschews force as a solution to problems. If you respect reason at its root - and that means preserving hierarchy and rejecting false justifications for morality (e.g., God) - and are consistent in that respect for reason, it follows quite naturally and common-sensibly that you would reject the use of force against reason-having beings. This stuff really is a no-brainer.

The criticism that a libertarian social order is devoid of a deeper structure which helps to preserve the societal structure and unite people under common values, simply doesn't apply to thinkers like Rand. She would - and did - make the argument that you can't have a societal structure of lasting liberty without a deeper structure of reason.

To sum up:

The only rightful purpose of government is the defense and preservation of freedom.

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