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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Libertarian Neutrality

is an illusion:

"And it is very difficult to believe that [laissez faire] best promotes happiness in Aristotle’s sense of the term.  For the market maximizes the satisfaction, not of all preferences, but rather of those backed by the most spending power.  It is bound, then, to cater to the most vulgar tastes and passions – which are, by definition, the most common and thus the ones most people will pay to satisfy – rather than to more refined sensibilities.  And since on an Aristotelian conception an individual’s moral character – his characteristic habits and sensibilities – is inevitably deeply influenced by the character types and sensibilities prevailing in the society around him, it follows that a commercial society is one in which the sort of refined moral character that most fully manifests the realization of human potentialities, and thus most fully guarantees human happiness, is bound to be very rare and difficult to achieve.  But then, since on a classical Aristotelian or natural law view, a society cannot be just unless it makes the attainment of virtue a realistic possibility, a libertarian society would seem to be deeply unjust.  It certainly isn’t neutral between an Aristotelian or classical natural law conception of justice and other conceptions." -- Ed Feser

21 comments:

  1. Didn't Mises address this? That liberal democracy and capitalism is the only system by which good tastes have a chance of being available to all?

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  2. What exactly is government supposed to do to make attainment of virtue a strong part of human society?

    Outside of a classical education in public schools, it would not need to make a single intervention.

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  3. Well, Ryan, if Mises said that, it is so obviously false that this is somewhat an embarrassment for him, right?

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  4. Perhaps, Prateek. In any case, much stronger attempts have been made: see sharia law. The point here is not whether those are a good idea, but rather that libertarianism is not neutral about such attempts.

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  5. Good evening, Dr. Callahan.

    This seems like deep stuff.

    Laissez faire is, obviously, a market concept. The market, as Feser noted, always bows to the most "vulgar tastes and passions." (It is no wonder that pornography is the most profitable business on the internet.)

    If Ryan is correct in saying that Mises thought capitalism would/could bring good tastes to all, Mises was mistaken because he *worshipped* capitalism. He thought that market freedom could overcome base desire.

    in fact, the only thing that can overcome the vulgar tastes of society is something that is outside of society; something that should truly be worshipped.

    Libertarianism, as it relates to the market, is not neutral as it pertains to a happy society. Libertarianism, as it relates to limited government interference in the lives of people (that is, freedom) is neutral in that the government is prevented from hindering the gospel.

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  6. That laissez-faire may not always (or even usually) promote happiness is due, as you are wont to say, to "human nature." Certainly laissez-faire does not guarantee happiness, because not everyone will choose virtue. But they *do* have the freedom to so choose, and virtue requires that freedom. If the reason you make "good" choices is because you are nudged, coerced, or bribed to do so, that is the soil from which moral decay, not eudaemonia, grows.

    It may be difficult to believe that freedom leads to happiness, but it is impossible to believe that paternalism leads that way. And I'll take difficult over impossible any day.

    I do agree with this part, though:

    "Might not the claim [that libertarianism upholds an impartial concern for all persons] be salvaged, though, if the idea of libertarianism as a ‘neutral’ or ‘political’ doctrine is abandoned and some rich comprehensive libertarian theory is put forward in its place?

    This might seem possible on some versions of libertarianism – for example, if...an old-fashioned Lockean natural rights theory could be revitalized.[xix] One problem, though, is that these deontological approaches to libertarianism do not seem to have many defenders today."

    In this respect, Barnett has indeed deviated significantly from his personal hero & influence, Lysander Spooner.

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  7. Eurobagger: "Honestly, that's complete idiocy. Gene and Ed, get brains, eh?"

    I read that, Eurobagger, and the rest of your post was deleted, unread. That I am a complete idiot I have no doubt, but Feser is one of the top Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers in the world, and if you think he doesn't get Aristotle, than there certainly is a complete idiot at work here, but it ain't Ed.

    If you'd like to get some manners and try posting again, you are welcome to do so.

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  8. Mike B., that you doubt the Aristotelian concept of a virtuous polity can be implemented is fine; the point is that libertarianism is not neutral towards that Aristotelian conception.

    The rest of your post embodies the atomic individualism on which libertarianism rests: with a different conception of the individual, what you see as "freedom" would appear as "license," what you see as "paternalism" would appear as "prudence," etc.

    Were you trying to illustrate Feser's point? :-)

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  9. > For the market maximizes the satisfaction, not of all preferences, but rather of those backed by the most spending power. It is bound, then, to cater to the most vulgar tastes and passions - which are, by definition, the most common and thus the ones most people will pay to satisfy - rather than to more refined sensibilities.

    Ick. I would argue that a system of property rights permits individual *agency*, and this agency is essential to living a flourishing life/attaining human happiness.

    Now it may be that some systems of property rights are better or worse than others. I don't want to pretend that there is one *best* system that I can articulate and we should all implement, but I think there *is* a good argument that something like a market must be *part* of any system which permits flourishing.

    Yes, people in a free society express vulgar passions and it's easy for actors to be tempted by them. However, I'm not sure that Aristotelian virtue demands that we stamp out these passions [or push them underground]. It's very difficult to do this and avoid treating people as means. Feser (IMHO) seems to be thinking of people as flowers in a little social garden. He admits that each flower should individually strive to be pretty. But in this paper, he's also saying that we should cull the flowers who fall below some prettiness threshold. Doesn't sound very virtuous to me.

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  10. Feser makes good points against contractarian versions of libertarianism, but you've singled out the weakest part of his essay here.

    Feser's contention that laissez-faire is not neutral to the attainment of virtue depends on highly questionable propositions which he does not defend. For example, why are free markets "bound" to make vice "prominent and celebrated?" Why are the most vulgar tastes "by definition" the most common ones? I am not familiar with Mr. Feser's work, but my spidey senses are tingling right now, and my spidey senses are telling me that, lurking somewhere in the background here, is the doctrine of original sin. Am I right?

    Laissez-faire only requires that vice be legally permitted; nothing is implied about whether people will decide to celebrate or eschew vice at any given time or place. It is no answer to say that such-and-such free market society did result in widespread vice. Perhaps, but Feser never even pretends to substantiate the claim that such results are logically necessary.

    Furthermore, even if Feser is correct on this point, I would answer then that *nothing* can be truly neutral under this view. Consider this part:

    "If a society characterized by an unfettered free market is bound to be one in which all sorts of behaviors considered sinful from a religious point of view are prominent and celebrated, then from a religious point of view such a society cannot fail to be seriously unjust, since it will tend greatly to reduce the likelihood that individuals living within it will be able to lead virtuous lives"

    My response: even if we assume arguendo that such a polity would be "unjust," it does not follow that there is another kind of polity that could possibly be any *less* unjust. And here is the clincher: A "good" deed that does not come from within -- one that is undertaken instead because of an external imposition -- cannot be virtuous. So, whether you want to label it "paternalism" or "prudence," punishing vice with the force of law not only reduces people's chances of living virtuous lives, it eliminates it entirely. It is therefore even *less neutral* (i.e., more antagonistic) to the Aristotelian conception of happiness than is laissez-faire.

    The 19th century laissez-faire constitutionalists got this point. You couldn't imagine a crustier, more old-fashioned bunch of conservatives. Yet they were able to grasp points like this: "The police power of the government cannot be brought into operation for the purpose of exacting obedience to the rules of morality, and banishing vice and sin from the world." - Christopher Gustavus Tiedeman.

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  11. I don't think that's a good argument.

    Specifically

    from

    "the market maximizes the satisfaction, not of all preferences, but rather of those backed by the most spending power"

    this

    "It is bound, then, to cater to the most vulgar tastes and passions – which are, by definition, the most common and thus the ones most people will pay to satisfy – rather than to more refined sensibilities"

    does not follow.

    It's very easy to imagine of a society that only likes "refined" things like opera music, or looking at grass grow or what have you *and* also has a free market economy providing those things very efficiently with orchestras playing amidst beautiful green pastures at the same time or whatever.

    I don't see why having a free market would mean you can't have those other things, or even why having a free market would tend away from those other things.

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  12. Mike B. and Avram, you've both made the same mistake: Feser's point *here* is about libertarian neutrality, not about whether the Aristotelian vision of a just polity is a good one.

    The contention he is debunking is that libertarianism (or liberalism in general) offers a value-neutral set of minimal laws that does not favor or hinder any people from realizing whatever more robust set of values they wish to adhere to.

    Feser is *not* here arguing for the Aristotelian understanding of a just polity: he is simply laying out what it is, and noting, "Libertarianism is certainly *not* neutral with respect to this vision of justice!"

    Your remarks here, in fact, *confirm* what Feser is saying! Libertarianism is not a neutral, minimal framework in which everyone can pursue their own preferred vision of the good life: no, it has its own vision of the good life, and it will exclude other visions in order to realize its own.

    Libertarianism and Aristotelianism are rivalrous visions of the just society, rather than libertarianism being a accommodating framework in which Aristotelians can freely live their own version of the good life.

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  13. I get Feser's argument. I just think it's wrong.

    His basic reasoning on this seems to be:

    (1) If a society reduces people's ability to lead virtuous lives, then that society is unjust in an Aristotelian sense.

    (2) Laissez-faire reduces people's ability to lead virtuous lives because it is "bound" to promote and celebrate sin and vice instead of more refined behavior.

    (3) Therefore, a polity governed by laissez-faire (i.e., libertarian principles) is unjust, and thus cannot be neutral to the Aristotelian conception of justice.

    However, my point is that Feser never gives us any grounds for believing that premise (2) is true. He seems to just implicitly assume the truth of this premise. My guess is that his reason for doing so has to do with background theological baggage (original sin, man's fallen nature, etc.) which he gives the reader no reason to take seriously.

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  14. "The contention he is debunking is that libertarianism (or liberalism in general) offers a value-neutral set of minimal laws that does not favor or hinder any people from realizing whatever more robust set of values they wish to adhere to."

    To clarify:

    I fully agree with the general point that libertarianism is not completely value-neutral, and that it excludes some values. Far from denying this, I embrace it.

    I disagree only with the specific point that libertarian law excludes Aristotelianism. Feser has given no reason to believe that Aristotelians would be hindered or unable to "freely live their own version of the good life" in a libertarian society.

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  15. "Laissez-faire only requires that vice be legally permitted; nothing is implied about whether people will decide to celebrate or eschew vice at any given time or place. It is no answer to say that such-and-such free market society did result in widespread vice. Perhaps, but Feser never even pretends to substantiate the claim that such results are logically necessary."

    Jaysus, Mike, why bin the world do you think Feser is dealing with logical necessity? In fact, isn't he talking about what is empirically likely?

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  16. Because he authoritatively states things like (just one example): in a libertarian society, the most vulgar tastes and passions will "by definition" be the most common ones. This clearly implies that there is not even a possibility anywhere and any time that refinement and virtue might be more common than vice in a libertarian society.

    That sounds an awful lot like logical necessity to me.

    Is Feser so certain that simply leaving people alone would result in a society so bad that it would fail to make the attainment of virtue even "a realistic possibility?" If so, that requires argument, not assertion.

    As an aside, if you really want to understand why virtue is more difficult than it should be, the place to start IMO would be values and ideas, i.e., education, NOT commerce. The sordid history of American schooling, as exposed by people like John Taylor Gatto, sheds some light on this. Compulsory public schools & curricula were largely shaped by industrialists and "social efficiency" experts in order to make people dumb, bored, and compliant consumers & citizens. And they succeeded. Considering all of us have been processed through these meat grinders of the mind, I'm surprised that there's as much virtue and goodness as there is. The irony is that the libertarian law you're so eager to discredit would stand as a bulwark against these types of spiritually toxic social engineering attempts.

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  17. @Marris: "I would argue that a system of property rights permits individual *agency*, and this agency is essential to living a flourishing life/attaining human happiness."

    Who is talking about eliminating property rights, Marris? (And in any case, agency still exists under communism.)

    And who is talking about "culling" any people?

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  18. My reply to your last post directed at me didn't go through. But the gist of it was that, when Feser makes strong statements like saying that the most vulgar tastes and passions will "by definition" be the most common ones under laissez-faire,

    Well, that pretty much sounds like logical necessity to me, because it implies that, in Feser's mind, there is no possibility that refinement and virtue will be more common in a libertarian society.

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  19. Mike, sorry I lost your post. Yes, "by definition" could mean that -- but then he says "most common," which implies an empirical, probabilistic argument. So maybe he was just being sloppy.

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  20. Do you think Feser is saying that (1) the agency choices in a libertarian society permit people to purse vulgar choices, (2) it is unjust to support a system in which many people are making vulgar choices, and (3) we *should* [since we should pursue justice], override property rights to close off some of those vulgar choices?

    I am inferring these things from the quoted passage above. Maybe you are inferring different things.

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  21. Marris, I'm bringing this top level: new post in a minute.

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