Is Morality Illiberal, Unlibertarian?

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In
his book Getting
What you Want?: A Critique of Liberal Morality
(Routledge,
1998), Robert Brecher chides classical liberals and libertarians
– in a civil tone and with considerable respect – for
their subjectivist theory of values. This is the idea we find often
expressed by economists to the effect that whatever it is that's
of value to a person achieves its status in virtue of the person's
preferring – or choosing or selecting – it from various
alternatives. It is, in short, subjects who establish what is of
value to them.

The
objective theory of values would have it that whatever is of value
to persons is of value to them whether they actually prefer or choose
or select it from various alternatives. How such values come to
be objective is, of course, a complicated philosophical issue. The
point is that they aren't values simply because of someone's valuing
them but because of a factual relationship between them and the
individual to whom they are of value.

The
subjective theory takes all values to be akin to one's tastes. That
some like vanilla ice cream does make such ice cream a value to
them entirely in virtue of its being liked by them. One's favorite
color, too, is thus a subjective value – it is of value to one because
one favors it, period.

For
the subjective value approach there are no other kinds of values
but the subjective kind best exemplified by preferred tastes and
colors. A well paying job, for example, is good for someone entirely
in virtue of his or her liking such a job. Or a gall bladder operation
is of value to the patient because that is what the patient chooses
to obtain, nothing else. The same goes for virtues such as honesty,
generosity, prudence – only if you like them are they right for
you.

The
objective value theory, in contrast, sees the liking of vanilla
ice cream, for example, as indeed a purely subjective value, even
if it becomes firmly entrenched but regards the good job and gall
bladder operation differently. These are of value to someone even
if the person fails to acknowledge them as being of value, fails
to choose or select them when they are available. Others then can
even criticize such failures, implore people to change their minds
about the matter, debate the issue. It is not all a matter of whether
they like it but often a matter of whether they ought to.

Brecher
makes these points well and defends the objectivist approach – though
not Ayn Rand's version, which is different from the intrinsic theory
that sees values as innate in some things and actions – but then perpetrates
what amounts to a serious and noteworthy error.

From
the fact that there are objective values people ought to pursue
and secure, Brecher takes it to follow that we may be forced to
secure them or that others may be forced to provide them. This is
a non sequitur, plain and simple. It doesn't follow.

It
needs to be shown, first, that what people ought to do – other than
abstain from intruding on others – is something they may be made to
do, and that what people ought to have is something others may be
made to provide for them. That's a hurdle none has managed to jump
except, as I hint above, when what they ought to do is to respect
other's rights! That's because others may and often ought to repel
them.

But
Brecher makes another mistake. He assumes that objective values
are "illiberal." That is to say, there must be a fundamental
conflict between liberalism (or libertarianism) and the existence
of objective values, ones that can be demonstrated to be right for
people. Why? Well, because of the previous error, namely, that if
there are objective values, they may be forced on people. If this
were so, then, yes, it would be illiberal to embrace the objectivist
stance because liberty would have to be rejected in favor of imposing
objective values. But it isn't so. So, we need not bite the bullet,
after all.

If
I ought to work hard, or do any other right thing, it is not true
that others may force me. Indeed, if they did, I would not be doing
what I ought to do but what I am made to do. Zero moral credit is
earned this way. What is right or good for me is something I have
to choose to pursue and obtain for it all to amount to anything
morally significant.

Now,
if I ought to gain some values I am unable or unwilling to gain,
this is not anything that others have signed up to remedy by means
of coercion. They have their own tasks, involving themselves, their
loved ones, their friends. Even if they ought to be generous, charitable,
compassionate and such, that, too, isn't something they may be forced
to do, since that also robs them of their moral agency, encroaches
on their sovereignty.

Brecher
might have figured this out with a bit of intellectual history,
inasmuch as a good many classical liberals have also been moral
objectivists – early on John Locke, for example, and more recently
Lord Acton, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard, to mention just a few
figures.

Alas,
Brecher's error is widespread and, unfortunately, encouraged by
some liberals and libertarians who also hold that if we could tell
what are values for people, we then would have reason to impose
these in a variety of ways.

March
13, 2004

Tibor
Machan [send
him mail
] holds
the Freedom Communications Professorship of Free Enterprise and
Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman
University, CA. A Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
University, he is author of 20+ books, most recently, Putting
Humans First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite
.

Tibor
Machan Archives


        
        

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