Scope of Political Philosophy and General Ethics

Rasmussen and Den Uyl in their book Norms of Liberty contend on p. 47 that certain “traditional [classical] liberals” decided most unwisely to identify political ethics with the entirety of moral law.

As a result, those who wanted to limit government by defining an extensive list of individual liberties ended up butchering or trivializing morality.

On the other hand, those who fancied a more robust morality willy-nilly granted to the state the power to “concern itself with the moral character of the community.”

In short, it seems that the former proposed that because the state ought not to outlaw drinking alcoholic beverages, alcoholism is not a vice; the latter, that the state ought to rescue people from alcoholism even if it means outlawing drinking.

Well, if one is to make a mistake, then why not this one? I don’t think that, for example, Rothbard is guilty of this, whose Ethics of Liberty stresses such points as:

What we are trying to establish here is not the morality of abortion (which may or may not be moral on other grounds), but its legality, i.e., the absolute right of the mother to have an abortion.

What we are concerned with in this book is people’s rights to do or not do various things, not whether they should or should not exercise such rights.

Thus, we would argue that every person has the right to purchase and consume Coca-Cola from a willing seller, not that any person should or should not actually make such a purchase. (98n)


For we are not, in constructing a theory of liberty and property, i.e., a “political” ethic, concerned with all personal moral principles.

We are not herewith concerned whether it is moral or immoral for someone to lie, to be a good person, to develop his faculties, or be kind or mean to his neighbors.

We are concerned, in this sort of discussion, solely with such “political ethical” questions as the proper role of violence, the sphere of rights, or the definitions of criminality and aggression. (152)

And again:

Political philosophy is that subset of ethical philosophy which deals specifically with politics, that is, the proper role of violence in human life (and hence the explication of such concepts as crime and property).

Indeed, a libertarian world would be one in which every individual would at last be free to seek and pursue his own ends — to “pursue happiness,” in the felicitous Jeffersonian phrase. (258)

I agree that proper libertarianism is “thin” and offers only a small slice of ethics, if that’s what the authors are suggesting.

Must the State Promote the Possibility of Moral Action?

R&D want to “limit the state to securing conditions for the possibility of moral action.” (50) But moral action is possible under any non-hellish conditions. It doesn’t even need the state. A man can obey the injunction “You shall not steal” even if the state is not tasked with punishing thieves. It’s true, of course, that punishing thieves helps.

Now what if Rothbard were asked why the laws shouldn’t go beyond “criminality and aggression”? I’d reply in his stead: it’s because the proper role of violence is defense, enforcement of judicial sentences, and punishment, not moral uplift.

It’s not that Rothbard was “indifferent to the promotion of virtue”; it’s that he figured that violence was not an appropriate means to promoting virtue, and in EoL he focused on those things for which violence was, in his opinion, useful.

Mises explicitly argued that the “liberals do not disdain the intellectual and spiritual aspirations of man. On the contrary. They are prompted by a passionate ardor for intellectual and moral perfection, for wisdom and for aesthetic excellence. … In their opinion the foremost social means of making man more human is to fight poverty. Wisdom and science and the arts thrive better in a world of affluence than among needy peoples.” (HA, 154-5) He held that liberalism fought poverty with unparalleled efficiency.

Maybe R&D are not mentioning the right liberals.

Whether the State Assists Morality?

The general motto of the state is: “Let them hate, so long as they fear.”

Seen in this light without any illusions, the state can hardly encourage moral growth directly, other than in the sense that fear of punishment is a stepping stone to internalization of norms and sense of duty and ultimately to charity.

The state can also help a society out of a prisoner’s dilemma in which everyone’s dominant strategy is to be unjust which puts them into a suboptimal equilibrium. Threatening punishment (ideally simply to be avoided by all) fixes the problem.

How Not to Think of Natural Rights

Apparently, some bad philosophers, like Henry Veatch, quoted in Norms of Liberty, hold that for you to have a right to do X means that it is morally right or even obligatory for you to do X.

What an unusual way of defining rights! On the standard definition, for Smith to have a right to do X means that it is other people’s duty not to interfere with Smith’s doing X, if doing X indeed strikes his fancy. It does not mean that it is Smith’s duty to do X!

Veatch is undeterred:

a person’s rights are strictly conditioned upon that individual’s life, liberty, and property being the necessary means of his living wisely and responsibly and of his becoming and being the person that a human being ought to be. …

his natural rights… cannot be said to entitle him so to live in the way he has foolishly and unwisely chosen to do. (67)

Well, here comes the Spanish Inquisition (presumably with Veatch in charge of it) to make us all live “wisely and responsibly.” Outrageous!

Abusing Rights Is No Reason to Lose Them

If it is true, as Veatch proposes, that — “that one should abuse one’s rights [that is, engage in nonperfecting conduct] must not itself be taken to be right, or even one’s right in any strict sense,” (67-8) then surely, one does not have a right to engage in fallacious reasoning.

Therefore, if I (as perhaps a Spanish Inquisitor) judge Veatch’s ideas to be “unwise” and even “irresponsible,” as in subversive of a good society, then by his own very reasoning I acquire a right (or even a duty) to punch him in the mouth to shut him up.

All for Veatch’s own good, of course. (And my own, if I am, say, “perfecting” my hook?) Hmm…

Freedom to Act; Property Rights over Objects

R&D are surely correct in saying that there is no

common stock of goods that everyone must equally regard as “wealth.” Property and wealth are not beings in rerum natura — that is, things that exist “out there” independently and apart of human cognition and effort.

But why insist that “the right to property is a function of the right to action” and even that “it is not objects per se that individuals need to have property rights to”? (Ch. 5)

Traditionally, we would say that people have property rights indeed over objects, yet freedom to act, rather than property rights to act.

Perhaps R&D want to emphasize that objects ought to satisfy some human ends if they are to be counted as wealth, either directly as consumer goods or indirectly as capital. Moreover, goods of the highest order that are simply found in nature and appropriated are not particularly well-suited for consumption; they must be transformed first through labor. Plus, what is “capital” depends on each individual’s mind: the same “thing” can be one type of good to one person, another type to a different person, and an entirely useless thing to yet a third; it is precisely these differences that generate entrepreneurial competition for capital. We also need to have an economy, as a systematic way of producing new goods when existing goods depreciate. We also want this economy to feature creative advance, that is, improvement in human productive capacities, and we want for our economy to become larger through integration of new lands into global social cooperation and for its division of labor to intensify, as in becomes more minute.

Even is they want to stress the unity of thing and act, I think it is a confusion to refer to property rights in actions.

Lastly, I don’t think that “two-substance dualism” can be proven false just from the premise that “the choices, judgments, or intentions of human action are ultimately realized in terms of material and physical realities in space and time.” Dualism may be true even if soul and body are intimately intertwined in a psychosomatic unity.

“Self-Perfection” Is a Means to Narrow Happiness

For St. Thomas, all men have the same last end, namely, the contemplation of God. Note that God in relation to man is still an external object, despite whatever charity unites the two. It’s just that it’s so beautiful and wondrous that its study will consume an eternity.

So, if supernatural telos of humans involves enjoyment of an external thing, then much more so, merely natural telos.

Self-perfection then cannot mean any sort of navel-gazing while admiring your own virtues. It must be both a means to and essential part of enjoyment of riches, of nice things.

The point of virtue must be to prepare oneself for some exquisite fun and good times.

Self-Perfection Permits Self-Enjoyment

R&D sharply separate their perfectionist virtue ethics from law. Their account “does not suppose… that the sine qua non of ethical reasoning is providing impersonal prescriptions.” (146) I assume it means they agree that no one’s self-perfection ever can possibly consist in committing violent crimes. As soon as one’s legal duties are satisfied, one is free to seek his self-perfection or self-actualization however he pleases.

But it seems to me that the scope of their ethics is far too broad. If I go make myself a sandwich, am I by that very fact perfecting myself? And if not, is this action permitted?

Is even the sandwich an “objective good”? If another person does not like sandwiches, is he making a cognitive error? Is he perhaps morally corrupt?

They keep talking about “proper” habits of character, “correct” choices, “right” actions for the sake of “moral excellence.” Proper and correct from whose point of view? Practical wisdom, Aristotle writes, “conduces to the good life in general.” What is the “good life”?

Now far be it from me to neglect the analysis of virtues of character and self-discovery. In fact, it has been my secret ambition at some point to update Summa Theologica, II-II for the modern world. But as Rothbard wrote, criticizing the left, “No person can pick up a spoon, go for a walk to his favorite pub, or turn on TV, without being carefully watched and denounced for taking a wrong political line, or for not molding all of his values and his life in accordance with ‘genuine revolutionary’ standards.” Likewise, must every thought and action in one’s life be performed with an explicit end of “perfecting” oneself?

It may be true that “a human being is more than a bundle of passions and desires,” (136) but a human being is in part a bundle of passions and desires, as this quote obviously acknowledges! Why must satisfying a passion, indeed, say, for a sandwich, have anything to do with ethics? Why can’t I just, in the final analysis, have some fun?

What Is the Meaning of “Self-Direction”?

When R&D write that enacting practical wisdom “must be initiated and maintained — it must be self-directed,” (150) what do they mean?

You direct practical wisdom to output the best course of action?

Practical wisdom directs your actions?

You think long and hard over what you want to do and then do it?

You seek expert advice and make an informed decision?

Their insistence on the importance of “self-direction” is puzzling. Whose direction is it going to be? It’s a trivial notion.

Utilitarianism, Too, Is “Agent-Relative”

R&D tirelessly proclaim that while we may talk of “flourishing” in general, any individual flourishes according to his own personal ideas. Such agent-relative flourishing

reflects the valuation of weighting (which is ultimately expressed by an individual’s time and effort) that is proper for… different persons. There is no single agent-neutral model to which each person’s pattern or weighting of these goods [intellectual pursuits, health, friendship, honor, etc.] must conform. None of these forms of flourishing is inherently superior to the other. Each has the necessary generic goods, but their proportions or weightings vary. The proper proportion must be worked out by practical wisdom in light of each individual’s nexus, community, and culture. (147-8)

I’m not so sure that our authors understand what they mistakenly call “agent-neutral” theories correctly. Utilitarianism aims to maximize the good over the entire society or impart it to the greatest number, but it does not deny that each person’s good is individualized and unique to him. Utilitarianism does not attempt to distill the maximum possible amount of utility serum and inject it into the masses to make them swoon with orgasmic pleasure. It says: let us structure the social institutions in such a way that people’s pursuit of their own happiness (or indeed flourishing), in whatever it consists for them, is most successful. It’s true, it does not privilege any particular man’s welfare over all others. But everyone counts, equally but still each as an individual. Utilitarianism aggregates good, but wills to each individual exactly what he wills to himself.