Natural Law Libertarianism in Two Flavours

My two latest Agoric Café videos:

In the first one, I chat with philosopher Eric Mack about walking out on Ayn Rand, clashing with Nazi Sikhs in Seneca Falls, libertarian rights theory, Kantian vs. Aristotelean approaches to fixing Randian ethics, Nozickian polymathy, the unselfishness of Samuel Johnson, the ethics of COVID lockdowns, physical distancing in Durango, the CIA as an argument against anarchism, shoving someone in front of a bus as a form of restitution, and the edibility of matter.

In the second video, I chat with philosopher Gary Chartier about Robin Hood, left-wing market anarchism, natural law, free speech and employer power, libertarian secularism, Seventh-day Adventism, religious epistemology, long-arc television, urban fantasy, Lawrence Durrell, Iris Murdoch, Whit Stillman, the evils of giving extra credit and taking attendance, and the attractions of being emperor.

37 thoughts on “Natural Law Libertarianism in Two Flavours

        • To be precise, the departing Dean recommended me for the Interim Dean position, but as he was departing the institution, he was flatly ignored. Two weeks later, I went out of my way to insult the entire administration in a multiple-recipient email, from the President down to the Dean (i.e., the very one who had recommended me), following which I loudly departed the institution. So I think the chances of my becoming Dean were relatively low the whole time.

          At present, I think they’re particularly low. That hasn’t stopped some well-meaning people from suggesting (in all seriousness) that I apply for the position. Ironically, they filled the Dean position today–but not with me. In a yet greater irony, I got a job offer today which I intend to accept–but not as Dean.

          I now feel guilty for hijacking Eric’s and Gary’s videos with this claptrap.

          Liked by 2 people

  1. Running commentary on the Eric Mack interview (1):

    I laughed out loud at Eric’s saying that Lewis White Beck exaggerated his (Eric’s) philosophical abilities in grad school. I can’t remember anyone ever doing that in my case, whether as an undergraduate or a graduate student. I had exactly the opposite reaction in one of the first papers I wrote in grad school, on Philippa Foot’s “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives.” My professor gave me a good grade for it in a fall semester course, then asked me to come back after Christmas break to discuss it. After being unable to find the paper after the first two attempts to meet with him, he found it, refreshed his memory, and said, “Yeah, this wasn’t all that good.”


  2. Running commentary on Mack interview (2):

    Yes, The Personalist later became Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, but lost its libertarian flavor along the way. Like Roderick, my early acquaintance with the libertarian philosophical literature came through reading 1970s-vintage papers (including Eric’s) in The Personalist, in my case in the late 1980s and early 90s. But I think the paper that influenced me the most early on was the one Eric published in Rasmussen-Den Uyl’s Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, which I probably read and re-read a dozen times. I don’t have it here, but I think it was called “The Fundamental Moral Elements of Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights.”

    I wonder whether Eric remembers the year he appeared at David Kelley’s IOS Summer Seminar? I went to the seminars in 1991-4, and then 1997, but don’t remember his being there. I missed the very first one (1990), as well as 1995 and 1996, and 1998 onward until returning once in 2013.

    I’d always assumed that the Kantian coloration in Eric’s work came from Nozick, but I guess not. Hadn’t realized that Eric’s dissertation was written before ASU.


  3. Running commentary on Mack interview (3):

    In hearing Eric’s stories about Eisenhower College, it occurs to me that my own academic career has managed to combine Eric’s early obnoxiousness with the very adaptation to dysfunction he was trying to avoid.

    Passing thought: the 1992 IOS Seminar took place at Hobart & William Smith College; I believe George Walsh was in attendance, but I didn’t realize (or didn’t remember) that HWS was where George taught. One of the most idyllic college campuses I’ve ever visited. (PoT’s Michael Young was the conference manager.)

    Apropos of Eric’s Nazi Sikh English professor: I don’t think anti-Semitism is particularly common in either Indian political culture or among Sikhs, but there is a radical strain of Indian nationalism that (at one time) sympathized with the Axis on anti-British grounds. But literal sympathy for Hitler strikes me as a fringe view among fringe views even in this sub-population.


  4. Running commentary on Mack (5):

    I enjoyed the discussion on the relationship between egoism and rights. I incline to a view in the neighborhood of Roderick’s and Greg Salmieri’s, maybe more toward Salmieri’s than to Roderick’s, except that I’d say that the view that Salmieri is defending in that ARSPS volume is closer to Roderick’s view than it is to the “strategic” view that Roderick and Eric are rejecting.

    Eric introduced his view by describing it as a form of “dualism.” I think the real driving motivation behind the Objectivist view is a commitment to a kind of monism. I thought that Roderick’s allusion to Mill was exactly on target, because I think what orthodox Objectivists (correctly) want is an egoist view more robust than Mill’s, but one like Mill’s in aspiration, that avoids the predicament described in Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics. In The Methods of Ethics, you get a kind of irresolvable trilemma produced by a commitment to three irreducible sorts of reasons–deontic/intuitionist, egoistic, and utilitarian–with no resources to decide between them. Mill’s ambition is to assimilate the first two types of reason to utilitarianism. The more plausible sorts of Objectivism try to assimilate the first and third types of reason to the second. But a dualist view like Eric’s starts out by assuming a tension that gets reinforced along the way so that in the end we’re left with a kind of Sidgwick-like antinomy of deontic versus egoistic reasons, with no resources to decide between them.

    Eric described Rasmussen-Den Uyl’s meta-normative view as a sort of consequentialism, but I actually think the view is closer to Eric’s than he realizes. Their view, like Eric’s, seems to me to involve a sort of normative dualism that Aristotelians and Objectivists are trying to avoid. If anything, from the perspective of the individual agent, Rasmussen-Den Uyl’s meta-normative principles have a deontic, not a consequentialist character; they don’t promote, and don’t claim to promote, the good of the agent. They promote society’s good, come what may for the agent. My whole problem with their view is that it becomes impossible to do any sort of class analysis within such a view: one can’t ask, even in principle, whether society is differentially advantageous for this versus that class of individuals, or good for this individual in this circumstance. The claim just seems to be that we have a single meta-normative framework, and everyone has to adhere to it regardless of whether that framework demonstrably promotes their good, and even if it doesn’t.

    I sort of agree with Eric in the sense that I see a tension between egoism and libertarian rights (at least on mainstream versions of libertarianism), but not necessarily egoism and rights per se.

    Incidentally, I’ve heard prominent Objectivists (of all people) defending the bizarre view that Roderick ascribes to Hayek: that we have to believe (and get others to believe) that, say, a capitalist-libertarian framework of meta-normative principles promotes the good of all, whether it does or not. I’m always irritated when I find these same people attacking post-Modernism as though it was saying something sui generis, when they’re saying something indistinguishable from the post-Modernists they claim to be attacking.


      • I was talking about the exchange that occurs around 50:00-54:00.

        In the exchange, you and Eric are both objecting to the idea that respect for rights is reducible to a strategic-consequentialist calculation that says that every attempt to violate rights will produce self-defeating consequences with respect to external goods. I agree with both of you there. Though he doesn’t quite put it this way, Eric then expresses skepticism at the Aristotelian strategy of re-conceiving well-being or self-interest to include the norms of justice is going, his point being (I guess) that any such attempt will either fail, beg the question, or fall short of what justice really demands.

        Eric then suggests that Rasmussen-Den Uyl have made such an attempt, and seems about to suggest that he thinks it fails because the meta-norms just end up being consequentialist in content (I’m not sure about that myself, but it seems plausible enough). Before he finishes that particular thought, you break in (how rude!) and suggest that R-D’s strategy isn’t a good paradigm instance of the Aristotelian approach, because their appeal to meta-normativity isn’t Aristotelian (I agree). You agree with Eric that the meta-norms are consequentialist. I’m agnostic there, but my point is that from the perspective of the individual agent making a decision in concrete circumstances, the meta-norms are likely to be deontic: they are side-constraints, or just plain old constraints, on actions that would promote the agent’s well-being.

        Put it this way. Suppose that I am a person in straitened economic or other circumstances, and my well-being would be promoted by my actively seeking the assistance of others, rather than by trying, quixotically, to solve my problem in a completely self-sufficient way, using my own meager resources and those alone. Suppose ex hypothesi that from the perspective of well-being, it doesn’t matter whether I seek the assistance of voluntary charity, or seek the assistance of a redistributive government program. The point is that, either way, seeking assistance might be better for me, both in terms of character and external goods, than Stoic forbearance and a quixotic attempt at self-sufficiency. It may be better for my psychological well-being to reach out rather than isolate, and better for my physical well-being to be given assistance rather than try quixotically to engage in some half-assed sort of self-help.

        Now suppose that the most feasible option I have for assistance is a government program. Egoistic or eudaimonistic considerations would then counsel seeking its assistance. But suppose that the meta-norm entails that the program should not exist, should be rolled back if it does exist, and should not be “sanctioned” (by participation) if it hasn’t yet been privatized. It may be that there is some rule-consequentialist rationale for that norm, but from my perspective in this situation, it has a deontic character. The norm “avoid taking assistance” is represented as a binding moral norm that I must follow on pain of committing injustice, but ex hypothesi following it subverts my well-being.

        I would argue that this scenario is pretty much ubiquitous. There is a sharp conflict between the requirements of eudaimonistic well-being and libertarian politics, or at least non-left-libertarian politics (about which I’m agnostic). Aristotelian libertarians (including Objectivists) miss this because they implicitly adopt a kind of classist Stoic/Malthusian ethos rather than a genuinely Aristotelian one. In the clutch cases, when the going gets rough for the particular agent, they default to Stoicism rather than Aristotelianism, telling the agent to “buck up” and forego assistance. The virtuous agent is envisioned on this view as something akin to Jean Valjean minus Valjean’s acts of theft–as in the first few thoughts in Valjean’s internal monologue in Les Miserables, I.7, where Valjean says something to the effect that “man is so made that he can suffer long before dying, hence a starving man should bear starvation with patience to avoid theft,” etc. Valjean himself doesn’t actually follow through on that thought, but reading right-wing authors, you’d get the impression that virtue requires it. Virtue entails starvation and penury for the greater glory of capitalism.

        So then Eric brings up Hayek. I was assuming that Hayek’s view is somehow analogous to the Dougs’. (My knowledge of Hayek is shakier than my knowledge of the other things discussed here.) In other words the “sufficiently general compliance with these norms” is generalized compliance with meta-normative-type norms. But you don’t get sufficiently generalized compliance with the norms unless people think that the norms themselves are justified, i.e., worth following because they promote well-being. Eric somewhat generously calls this a “transcendental argument up to the norms.” It just sounds like collective self-deception conducive to classist ideology to me.

        At about 54:00, you give a gloss on Hayek that I was calling the “bizarre view”: there is in fact no justification for the norms, consequentialist or otherwise; it’s just better, somehow, if we think there is. Put that way, Hayek’s view literally expresses a sort of ideological mystification right out of Marx’s critique of capitalist political economy. If that’s the view that Hayek held, I sort of get Ayn Rand’s animosity for him. The view basically says that capitalism is a Noble Lie that everyone should pretend to believe. You can also see why leftists would become Public Enemy #1 to people who adopt a view like this: they’re evil because they won’t go along with the Noble Lie.

        What I find incredible is that at the 2013 Atlas Society seminar, when I would raise my own view about the tensions between egoism and libertarianism, the default response to my objections to libertarian politics was this Hayekian-type one, expressed in Randian language: we don’t have an argument for why capitalism promotes the good of all, but we have to act as though we do, lest the dispossessed rise up and undermine capitalism itself. For these same people to then turn around and assail post-Modernism as an assault on Truth and Reality is frankly incredible.

        But this combination of commitments–Noble Lies for capitalism, vociferous attacks on leftist post-Modernism–is, in my experience, very common among both Objectivists and libertarians: pretend that capitalism promotes the good of all, but when faced with circumstances in which it seems not to, pretend that it does (or by definition, must); then distract attention from the obvious defects in one’s case for capitalism by attacking post-Modernism, collectivism, and all the rest. I ditched the Objectivist movement when I did less because I thought Objectivism was defective but because I thought such attitudes were.


        • Well, I put it loosely or metaphorically there, but the gloss on it is what I say immediately afterward — that Hayek is doing for rule-utilitarianism what rule-utilitarians do for act-utilitarianism. In other words, the rule-utilitarian says that choosing individual actions for their expected good results has bad consequences, and we will get better consequences if we instead choose general policies according to their expected good results, and then choose individual actions in accordance with those policies. Hayek’s twist is to say: given the limitations of human reason, choosing general policies according to their expected good results also has bad results, and we will get better consequences if we instead choose general policies that have emerged through spontaneous social evolution, as these are likely to have better results even if we can’t always see why, and so it’s destructive of social order to constantly be looking to good social results even though those are what ultimately justify the rules. This isn’t really a “noble lie” view in any ordinary sense, because we don’t have (as we do in Plato) an epistemic elite who understand the real reasons but are propagating a false view for consumption by the plebs; for Hayek we’re all in the same boat.

          I really think you should read _Law, Legislation, and Liberty_.


          • I guess it’s not a Noble Lie, it’s just a huge stretch, highly conducive to self-deception by everyone involved.

            Granted, that’s an admittedly uncharitable and relatively uninformed crack.

            The first line of the Editorial Foreword to the Chicago edition of The Constitution of Liberty says that “Many scholars view The Constitution of Liberty to be F.A. Hayek’s greatest work.” So I browsed it, disagreed with it, and figured I was thereby absolved of reading Law, Legislation, and Liberty on the grounds that I spontaneously didn’t feel like reading it. Why bother with lesser works if you don’t like the greatest?

            So you’re saying that’s not a genuinely truth-conducive procedure?

            I guess the question here is: could Hayek say that it’s not a genuinely truth-conducive procedure?

            I hope my realtor doesn’t read this. I’m supposed to be preparing my house for a showing right now, not wasting time on my blog. It seems a counter-example to Hayek’s conception of spontaneous order that the house doesn’t spontaneously prepare itself to be shown. I intentionally have to sit here, engage in elaborate rational planning, then physically, intentionally carry out the plans. And here I thought the market would do these things. What a load of crap.


                • I will say, on behalf of the most recent edition (the “definitive edition”) of The Constitution of Liberty, that it has one decisive advantage over any edition of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, and indeed over any other Hayek book known to me, namely that I am cited in it (on page 28):

                  That is no doubt the point of superiority that your “many scholars” had in mind.


                • If you’re using the Kindle Preview that has no page numbers, you’ll find me under “Editor’s Acknowledgments.”


    • One thought I had while listening to the interview that I forgot to mention: in discussing the tensions (etc.) in the Objectivist view, it seems to me that one position that hasn’t gotten sufficient attention is that “the Objectivist view” is too indeterminate to constitute a single, determinate counterfactually stable theory. There just isn’t enough there for anyone to ascribe some sophisticated position X or Y to it.

      Eric basically says as much when he takes issue with Rand’s views on anarchism. What he says is that she writes without knowing what she’s talking about. Roderick says the same, correctly, of Harry Binswanger’s embarrassingly ill-read attacks on anarchism. But why not just take this one step further? What’s true in those specific contexts is true across the board of Objectivism. Would Rand’s characterization of the problem of universals get high marks in a graduate seminar in metaphysics? Would her attempt to reconcile egoism and justice do the same? Despite its perceptiveness, what trained philosopher would give an “A” to the argument of “The Age of Envy”? Etc.

      There are some striking, arresting ideas in Rand, but very, very few (if any) worked out arguments. Unless you defer to the avatars of The Oral Tradition, where all the Real Arguments reside, the hard fact is that most of Objectivism exists in potentia, not in realized form. So it seems premature even to criticize most of “it.” There isn’t enough there to criticize, until the interpreter does the work of furnishing arguments on Rand’s behalf that aren’t actually in the text.

      I find it ironic that the most proficient over-readers and over-interpreters of Rand are people associated with the Ayn Rand Institute, the institute that achieved prominence for saying that Objectivism = Ayn Rand’s specific words and formulations, full stop. To the extent that they have made bona fide philosophical progress, it’s by flouting that idiotic dogma. They’re perfectly willing to flout it, just unwilling to admit that they are. But the rest of us should take the hint.


        • I think I read that post back in 2004 when it first went up. I agreed with what you said about Rand when I read it (and still do), but hadn’t read enough of Bacon to judge. I went on a Bacon-reading spree a few years ago, and now agree with Wittgenstein as well.

          I have a slight inclination to take the more uncharitable view of both Bacon and Rand, the one that Wittgenstein takes of Bacon, and that you (nice guy that you are) reject in both cases. I’m torn here. On the one hand, I feel like you’re being too charitable to both of them, but on the other hand, I suspect that this is just my choleric disposition speaking (“quick tempered to extreme, and irascible about everything”), which I probably have to fight to achieve Aristotelian “mildness,” i.e., NE IV.5.

          By the way, now that I have you cornered or collared or whatever, a question on a totally unrelated topic: I’m re-reading NE, and for the nth time, am flummoxed by NE V (my least favorite book of NE). Here’s the least of my confusions: near the end of NE V.2, Aristotle is listing involuntary (unjust) transactions, one of which Irwin translates as “slave-deception” (1131a7). Do you happen to know what that is?


          • “Doulapatia” is often translated as “enticement of slaves” (viz., away from their masters). Whether it has to involve “deception” is unclear (I’m not sure what the etymology is, beyond the “doula” part).. The corresponding crime in the antebellum South seems to have covered non-deceptively inviting and/or helping slaves to run away.


  5. Running commentary on Mack (6):

    The suicide example Eric needs is actually a pretty common one–jumping off of a bridge into a large river, where the body gets swept away, and is never found.

    Unlike Eric, I not only would accept the argument he gave, but do so wholeheartedly. I don’t see the reason why we should discourage people from hearing the argument, even as a half-joking matter. Soft paternalism is actually a standard part of the training of people in mental health occupations (it’s taken for granted and drilled into them/us), and ultimately, having undergone such training, I find the view pretty plausible in the relevant sorts of case. The vast majority of suicides involve confused thinking and impulsive action that the suicidal person would likely regret if he could reverse the action after having enacted it. Yes, there is some danger to allowing paternalism, especially paternalism likely to be enforced by police departments, but I think libertarians systematically overlook the more common case of unnecessary suicide.

    I can’t remember whether or not I’ve reproduced this video on PoT before, but this is a pretty common sort of scenario:

    I think this suicide would almost certainly have violated the rights of the drivers on the road below the bridge. To avoid third parties in suicide examples, you really need river or ravine examples. Rivers are better, because you (often) don’t have to worry about what to do about the body.

    As I’ve argued elsewhere on PoT, I don’t think libertarian views on suicide are altogether consistent.

    The case above is one in which a libertarian opportunistically invokes suicide because it makes the polemical points he wants to make at one time, even if it contradicts the use he made of suicide at another. Apparently, suicide is, for him, just a polemical weapon to be thrown around, not a topic worth taking seriously for itself. The attitude strikes me as regrettably common among libertarians.


  6. Commentary on Mack (8):

    I don’t have time to elaborate on this, so I’ll just leave it at a bare statement of the intuition, but it seems to me that we can get some purchase on Typhoid Mary and lesser-but-similar cases by thinking about traffic offenses like drunk driving and careless driving, where you have degrees of the offense, a clear connection between action-type and causation of harm, but a less clear connection between action-tokens and instances of harm.

    In other words, just there are degrees of carelessness with respect to spreading a disease, there are degrees to carelessness or drunkenness in driving.

    There is a clear causal connection between the action type carelessness with respect to spreading a contagious disease and consequent harm, as there is in the cases of drunk driving and careless driving.

    And yet, in all three cases, there are token instances of each act-type that aren’t likely to produce much harm, whether because they’re too trivial to do so, or because of plain old chanciness even in non-trivial cases.

    The thing about traffic offenses is that we’ve been dealing with them for over a century, whereas pandemics come but once a century. So my hypothesis is that how we think about traffic offenses helps clarify thinking about the ethics of lockdowns, etc.


  7. One last thought on Eric’s interview:

    In discussing Objectivist approach to justice/rights, Eric suggests that he thinks that all such approaches collapse into a kind of solipsism because they require the claims of others to travel through the well-being of the agent engaged in performing the just act. Later he expresses skepticism that even a broadly Aristotelian approach can succeed in making justice a part of well-being.

    It seems to me the criticism he makes of Objectivism states an adequacy condition on an Aristotelian account: It seems plausible to think that solipsism is not in the agent’s self-interest. If so, an adequacy-condition on any Aristotelian account of well-being will just have to be that it conceive the claims of justice so as to promote the well-being of the practitioner while avoiding solipsism. We need a conception of well-being “thick” enough or broad enough (whatever the right metaphor is) to accommodate the fact that in practicing justice, it’s in the just agent’s interests to take full stock of the reality of the other person’s claims as an independent, rights-bearing, claim-bearing being.

    But it’s worth remembering that on an Aristotelian view, the paradigm human relationship is not the one that obtains between strangers in a market, but between friends. Friends contribute to one anothers’ good while preserving their autonomous independence as individuals. Friendship is obviously a more intimate relationship than mere respect for rights among strangers. So if we can fully cognize the reality of others’ claims within the context of friendships that promote our own well-being (claims that go well beyond mere respect for rights), it shouldn’t be that difficult to do the same within the context of merely respecting the independent claims of justice that others make. The claims of justice are usually less strenuous than the demands of loving intimacy. Recognizing the independent claims of the driver in the next lane is a lot easier than recognizing the independent claims to empathetic attention from a significant other or friend. If we can do the latter while preserving our sense that the friendship/relationship promotes our interests, there’s no obstacle to doing the same, mutatis mutandis, in the case of garden-variety claims of justice.

    I realize that that doesn’t really solve the problem, but I do think it mitigates the appearance of unresolvability suggested by Eric’s comments.


  8. Well, I got as far as the introduction to Gary’s interview, but I was offended by the sheer magnitude of Gary’s output, so I’m going to boycott the rest, and call for Gary to be canceled forthwith–along with all the publishers who have published him, starting with Routledge.


      • I think the more dialectically appropriate term would be “excusable envy.” Yes, I hate Gary’s productiveness for its productiveness, true. But to paraphrase Rawls and putting him into dialectical conversation with Rand, sometimes the circumstances evoking hatred of the good for being the good are so compelling that given human beings as they are, no one can reasonably be asked to overcome his rancorous feelings. Indeed, we can resent being made envious, for Gary may permit such large disparities in the goods existing under his control that the differences cannot help but cause a loss of self-esteem. For those suffering this hurt, hatred of the good for being the good is not irrational. So ultimately, my hatred for Gary’s productiveness is really Gary’s fault. I deeply resent the fact that Gary’s productiveness has made me hate him through my lack of self-esteem. If he hadn’t been so productive, none of this unnecessary rancor of mine would have been necessary. I really think Gary need to do some soul searching on this. Was it worth it, Gary?


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