The Things We Assume

The hardest parts of our own belief systems for us to realize are there are the things we unconsciously assume. For instance, look at this comment from another post (and I don't mean to pick on the commentator here -- we all have such unwitting assumptions!):

"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?"

Note well point three -- it assumes that there is a right to, say, distribute pornography, but Feser thinks that there is something else important that allows him (or the government he wishes to have, the proper authorities, etc.) to override this right in the interest of this other good.

Well, I will boldly speak for Feser here, and bet you 100-to-1 that that isn't the way he looks at the situation at all. He doesn't think he is advocating a rights violation in the interest of something more important. No, he would argue (and again, I'm guessing, but with high confidence that I'm guessing rightly) that no one should have any such right in the first place. Rights, in his view, are created by a political community in order to advance human flourishing. No one has the right to do things destructive of such flourishing. (And that doesn't mean that every such destructive thing need be banned: the standard Thomistic take on such matters is that the effects of the ban can easily be worse than the vice, marijuana prohibition being an obvious example.)

Merely phrasing it the way the commentator did above obviously tilts the argument in favor of a libertarian conclusion: the pornographer is having his rights violated!


  1. It seems to me property rights are part of the solution. Private property + freedom of association = people who don't like pornography able to live in the same geographical area and able to impose penalties on each other should someone violate the agreed upon terms of association. This might even sort of look like the sort of state you like, but there would be clear boundary lines.
    I stopped reading Feser in part because he seemed to happy to use force and claim universal jurisdiction, and in part because he degenerated into some silly spat with someone whose opinion I cared even less about.

  2. I think your exchange with the commenter is blurring the distinction between legal and moral rights. We would all agree that Feser does not believe there is a *moral* right to (as our canonical example) distribute pornography. The commenter is just pointing out that this necessarily entails restricting it as a legal right, and thus limiting the right of private property.

    I don't see any assumption on the commenter's part that Feser differs in what moral rights people have, just what legal ones they should have.

  3. Silas, I think the word "override" implies the right exists whatever the law is: the law might "override" the right, but it exists anyway, or so the commentator believes.

  4. That's an interesting view, August, but not to the point of this post, which is about unconscious assumptions.

  5. Wow! Gene has written two posts from my comments in two weeks.

    Gene, I understand where you're coming from, and my post is weirdly worded, but you are mistaken about my assumptions. I don't assume that libertarian property rights are the only possible system of property rights. I should have probably left the phrase "property rights" out of that sentence in the first place... so it should read "we *should* [since we should pursue justice], close off some of those vulgar choices."

    I understand that Feser does not see this as a property rights violation. If you use justice and rights synonymously (as I do), then he is indeed saying that there is no right to make vulgar choices.

    However, I don't think this word gymnastics address my underlying objection: Do *I* flourish when I limit *your* choices to what *I* consider non-vulgar. It is certainly possible that the busybody is *not* leading a flourishing life, and is not leading it because he is restricting the choices of other agents in an attempt to turn his community into a virtue garden. He is guilty of treating the other agents as means, not ends. My criticism of Feser is that he does not address this point.

  6. Marris, I think your analysis in terms of a "virtue garden" and treating others like means is extremely confused. But that is not the point I (echoing Feser) have been making: It is that the Aristotelian vision of a just society is incompatible with the libertarian vision. Your opinting out how Aristotelians are mistaken underlines, not contradicts, Feser's point.


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