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.

16 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 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.


  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.


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