Friday, January 20, 2012

Layers of morals

A couple of days ago I commented on an article I read on the Huffington Post, in which Jeffrey Sachs argued that libertarians are too single-minded in their defense of liberty:
Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable -- all are to take a back seat.
The short answer to this piece is that it's just a straw man argument from start to finish. What I found astonishing is that Sachs was willing to point to thinkers like F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman as examples of people who didn't hold such extreme positions, when in fact most modern day libertarians would consider themselves solidly in "their camp," i.e. the camp of Hayek and Friedman. The fact that Ayn Rand slips in there every so often does not negate the many other classical liberals who have truly shaped modern libertarianism.

But perhaps something more needs to be said philosophically. I've argued before that libertarianism has some philosophical flaws to deal with; but I view those flaws as correctable, constituting a discussion to be worked out within the libertarian camp rather than as a reason to abandon it.

The main point I want to make is that there are multiple layers of morality. The reason libertarians champion liberty over all other values is that we are speaking of the political sphere. Politicians unfortunately seem to benefit from expanding the political sphere into other areas of life. I believe this works because they appeal to our instincts, which are not very well-trained to resist their rhetoric.

What do I mean by layers of morals? Well, there are first morals which you develop within the context of your family upbringing--whatever that was like. You learn how to treat your parents and your siblings, and you learn how to become a responsible person. In this context you learn personal morals, which help to shape you into a better individual. Eventually you leave the nest and begin to learn morals from other sources, whether from your friends or from ancient texts or from elders you look up to. In any case, there is no reason to expect that everyone will share your exact moral priorities. Every time you take a particular job or make a decision about which house to buy in what neighborhood, you are making a moral decision based on the values that seem right to you, and no one else. That is the first layer of morality.

Beyond this there are morals that continue to apply to you, but are not yours personally. You act a certain way around your family, another way around your friends, and another way around your coworkers. You pick up certain conventions and certain manners that make it easier to act appropriately. This is a second layer of morals.

Beyond this there are certain morals which apply to the institutions to which you belong, such as a company or a church or an activist organization. In this case the morals you acquire may not be as close to your heart, and may even be in conflict with some of your own personal values. Commitment to these institutions will require that you continue to wrestle with these moral conflicts, just as commitment to your friends and family will also require some concessions.

Beyond this we also have civic duties, to our city or state or national government.

And beyond this, we have certain moral responsibilities to one another as human beings. Even if you don't know someone "from Adam," you do know that you are at least related in the sense of being human, and that implies a certain level of tolerance and respect is expected. (Sadly, it seems this layer of morality is the most difficult to find fully functional.)

All of these layers of morality are connected to one another and, as I have already hinted, must compete with one another in each individual mind. What ought to uncontroversial is that only through voluntary assent can people actually become more moral. For instance, it is only by my wrestling with my personal and institutional morals that the institution might actually change me as a person. If I am merely forced to do the "right thing" in the eyes of that institution, nothing happens to my personal morals; rather, I merely become resentful, angry, or perhaps resigned. The same is true at all levels.

Now the problem is that as the state grows in its influence, these layers of morality are not acknowledged, and moral questions are posed to us as if there were no layers of separation between us and the state. We are asked questions such as, "What if a young man is in an accident and has no health insurance? Should society let him die?" Because of the way our minds work, we immediately imagine ourselves in such a situation, either as the young man on the verge of death or as an onlooker trying to decide what to do. Based on our personal morality, which functions within the world of people and things we can actually see and influence, we make the conclusion that indeed, society should not let him die.

Our instincts are good and the immediately conclusion we come to is in some sense correct. Anyone in the position to help someone live should help that person live. The question is whether such an abstract question has any bearing on the relationship between the state and our individual lives. The state is not an ever-present entity always looking over every individual person. It is also not the molder of all institutions of a society. The rhetoric used by politicians and political pundits belies the fact that the powerful elite actually have exceedingly little to do with how the majority of our world came into being.

So when libertarians argue for freedom, this is emphatically not at the expense of all other virtues. However, we do insist that moral order does exist even in the absence of ruling officials.

The purpose of government is not to achieve fixed goals, which will lead to a perfect society. The purpose is rather to break down those barriers which inhibit societal progress. As a libertarian, my view is that society only makes progress when individuals have the freedom to make moral decisions of their own volition. This is a far cry from everyone "doing whatever they want." Instead, it simply means that institutions will stand or fall based on their ability to serve the needs and desires of real human beings.

I don't think I've spelled everything out quite the way I'd like, so I'll have to return to this later. In the meantime, I encourage anyone interested in a different perspective on libertarianism to to and check out some of the discussions going on there.

1 comment:

  1. Great points, Jameson!

    I agree completely.

    I think that you said it best when you described the difference between the individual person and the state. The state is not some omnipresent individual.

    I would add the clarification that the state is a lifeless apparatus. Nothing more. It is the medium that governs (and in the case of laws, currency, etc, even provides the mechanism) the actions of the individual, and NOT an individual itself (or even a collective of individuals).

    So Jeffery has a fundamental misunderstanding about who is doing what. He is right to argue for his list of "good things" besides liberty, but they are only attainable in a state that is free enough to allow its individuals so to act.

    For example, state-imposed compassion is really conscription, and state-imposed humility is really humiliation. These virtues can only exist on the level of the individual.

    The state as apparatus should be a free medium to best enable its individuals to employ these important virtues AS individuals.


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