Unfazed by Feser: Phase 2
by David Gordon
Writers often accuse their opponents of misrepresenting their views. Frequently, these accusations have merit: stating someone else's position accurately is not an easy matter. Edward Feser, in his detailed response to my criticism of his posts on war and libertarianism, has managed something much more rare than misrepresenting someone else. He has misrepresented one of his own articles.
In the first installment of his Right Reason series, Feser argued in this way: Some Catholic traditionalists attack the Iraq War as manifestly unjust. They condemn Catholic supporters of the war in harsh terms. But if a traditionalist is someone who adheres to the standards of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, the critics of the war have matters backward. Judged by traditional standards, the war counts as just.
Feser did not claim that Catholics must support the war: there was room, he held, for honest differences of opinion. But, given that the traditional teaching of the Church does not correspond with their views, should not conservative Catholic opponents of the war refrain from condemning supporters as untrue to the Church?
In response, I pointed out that several impeccably conservative theologians defended before 1960 much more stringent views about just war than the manuals that Feser cites. He was wrong to present his manuals as giving the sole accepted view of the pre-Vatican II Church.
Feser now says that he already acknowledged this difference of opinion in his second post. But he didn't. He did, as I have already mentioned, allow for differences of opinion about the justice of the war. But the opponents of the war, e.g., those who follow the Pope, were as he presented matters deviants from the traditional view: he never acknowledged, prior to my article, a difference of opinion in the pre-Vatican II Church about the just war requirements.
But does not this point leave his main argument intact? The manuals taught one widely held traditional account of just war: should not even traditionalists who follow other authorities acknowledge that those who follow the manuals are true to the Church? Should they not, then, abandon the claim that the Iraq War is manifestly unjust?
I do not think they need do so. For Feser's argument to work, one must not only accept the manuals but also accept that, judged by the standards taught there, it is reasonable to think that the war qualifies as just. Feser of course does think this: but someone who rejects his analysis can consistently hold both that the manuals teach a commonly held view of tradition and that the war is manifestly unjust.
To do him credit, Feser does not confine his misrepresentations to his own article: he also makes a false claim about what I said. He finds it "bizarre" that I rest part of my case against him "on an imaginative reconstruction of my [Feser's] purported psychological development vis-à-vis Catholicism." This is parallel to the Marxists, who constantly search for hidden motives and are unwilling to concede that their opponents "could possibly be arguing reasonably and in good faith."
In my article, I said nothing at all about Feser's psychological development, in relation to Catholicism or anything else. Concerning this topic, I am totally ignorant. I offered a brief summary of his 2004 JLS article and his 2005 Hayek Lecture, without any speculation at all about his motives. Perhaps his objection is to the sentence, "After a long struggle, he [Feser] had broken free from libertarianism; he could no longer reconcile libertarianism with traditional morality, as taught by the Catholic Church." I did not intend here to suggest that Feser was struggling with Catholicism: I meant only that he had changed his views about whether libertarianism is compatible with Catholic teaching. I no doubt should not have said "after a long struggle"; for all I know, his change of opinion proceeded quite easily.
Further, it is false to claim that I pretended that his move away from libertarianism was motivated entirely by Catholicism. My summary of his 2004 article made no reference to Catholicism. I did claim that in his Hayek Lecture, he said that Rothbard's thought is not consistent with Catholic social teaching. But this is not psychological speculation; it is simply an accurate account of what he said.
The closest I came to anything psychological is the suggestion that Feser took personally the claims by some of the Neo-CONNED! volumes contributors that the Iraq War was manifestly unjust. Since he is a traditional Catholic and a supporter of the war, he was hardly likely to view with favor claims that Catholics who support the war are untrue to their faith. I hardly think that this is a search for hidden motives; but if this be psychological speculation, make the most of it. In any event, nothing in my "case" rests on anything I say about Feser's intellectual evolution.
Further, I never suggested that Feser was not arguing reasonably and in good faith. As he has now raised the issue, I am glad to say that I think that Feser has always argued in good faith. The contentions of his to which I object seem to me to be reasonable, with the exception of some of his remarks about Rothbard's worldview, which are ignorant and outrageous nonsense.
Let us turn to a more congenial topic. Feser advances an interesting, though I think mistaken, claim about libertarianism. He suggests that "‘libertarianism' just isn't as determinate, straightforward, or even coherent a view as its advocates assume it to be." As he sees matters, the self-ownership principle is indeterminate; how it is "filled in" depends on the moral theory on which one bases the principle. A contractarian, e.g., will specify the rights that comprise self-ownership in a different way from an advocate of natural law.
He gives two related arguments for this claim, one in his JLS article and one in the Hayek Lecture. One might think at first that the self-ownership principle is reasonably clear. If you say that someone owns his own body, then, e.g., you cannot conscript him into the army, force him to labor for you, or compel him to donate blood to the Red Cross. You may accept self-ownership or reject it, depending on your moral theory; but why is the content of the principle affected by the choice of moral theory?
Feser in the JLS article answers in this way: The self-ownership principle must be extended by the Self-Ownership Proviso (SOP). The Proviso takes care of cases where someone "nullifies or disables the other's abilities to bring his powers to bear on the world," in a way that leaves the other's formal self-ownership intact. It is through the SOP that the content of the self-ownership principle becomes relative to different moral theories. If, e.g., you support traditional natural law, you might contend that for children effectively to exercise their moral powers, they require an environment free of certain types of moral pollution. This may justify legal restrictions on certain public activities, e.g., gay pride parades in residential areas, which prima facie are compatible with formal self-ownership. If, by contrast, your moral theory raises no objection to homosexual behavior, you will not interpret the SOP in this way. (I should not have said in my previous article that Feser thinks that restrictions on homosexual conduct may be compatible with self-ownership: it is only public conduct that he discusses.)
This argument is only as strong as the SOP, and I do not think that Feser has succeeded in showing that "formal" self-ownership must be modified by it. He motivates acceptance of the SOP with an ingenious example: Fred activates a device that sucks out all the air around Charles, causing Charles to choke to death. Fred has not violated Charles's formal self-ownership rights: he has not touched anything belonging to Charles. But he has made it impossible for Charles to exercise his rights. To take care of this case, must not formal self-ownership be modified by the SOP?
I do not think so. Fred has killed Charles, in a perfectly straightforward sense. It is true that he has not touched Charles, but why is this relevant? Libertarians maintain, like almost everyone else, that persons have a right not to be killed. There isn't a special libertarian view of what killing someone involves: if you kill someone, even without touching him or his property, you have violated his "formal" right to self-ownership. In like fashion, suppose that Fred poisons some unowned water that he has good reason to believe Charles is about to drink. Fred has, in an ordinary understanding of law, attempted to murder Charles. Libertarians should not hold otherwise; and there is no need to modify the self-ownership principle to take account of such cases.
In the Hayek Lecture, Feser gives a different but related argument. According to libertarian principles, you cannot initiate force against someone. But to know what situations count as initiating force, people's rights must be specified. Suppose, e.g., that you are forcibly prevented from producing heroin. If you have no right to produce heroin, then your rights have not been violated. And a supporter of traditional natural law will in fact hold that you have no right to produce heroin. The purpose of rights, on a natural law view, is to enable human beings to flourish. Harmful activities, such as producing or using heroin, are inimical to human flourishing; thus a supporter of natural law will not think that people have an inherent right to use or produce heroin. (He may still oppose drug laws, for reasons of prudence; but self-ownership, as he will construe it, does not include the right to use or produce heroin.)
My objection to this argument is that it does not follow from "the purpose of rights is to promote human flourishing" that "people have rights to engage only in those activities that are not contrary to human flourishing." Someone can consistently accept the premise while rejecting the conclusion. He might think that people will best flourish given the right to engage in any activities that do not initiate force, where rights are specified relative to self-ownership in what Feser terms a 'formal' way, rather than a moralized one. Even if he thinks it is immoral to produce heroin, he will regard prohibition of heroin production as initiating force. This is precisely what Rothbard did hold.
Feser responds to several of the criticisms I raised about his application of the just war criteria to the Iraq War. Here I am content to let readers judge for themselves. I confine myself to a few remarks: In answer to my point that violations of the cease-fire by Iraq do not justify regime change, Feser notes that these violations continued over a long period. Is it not justified to remove the offender to keep him from re-offending, he asks? Not if one can stop him by less extensive military intervention. He notes that the traditional criteria allow "punishment for wrongdoing (as opposed to mere deterrence)." Yes; but in the era of sovereign states, the extent to which one state can punish the acts of another is problematic.
He suggests that the "benign sense" of American world domination that he favors is consistent with the manuals: in any case, this is a separate issue from the defense of the Iraq War. But his suggestion is that America handle world problems that other nations cannot handle by themselves, so long as doing so is in America's national interest. But is it not easy to assume a regional crisis that the concerned nations cannot settle for themselves, is in America's interests to solve, but does not meet the conditions for war set forward in the manuals? And if the Iraq War is part of such a scheme for world hegemony, then in my view the war violates the right intention criterion.
In answer to my criticisms of his alleged parallels between Rothbard and Marx, Feser says that he did not intend his parallels to be exact: further, some of his points apply to Rothbard's followers, rather than to Rothbard himself. I appreciate his conciliatory tone, but this does not excuse the fact that, as I endeavored to show in my article, his "parallels" are not merely inexact, but wildly misinformed. But on this unhappy topic, as Dante long ago said, "non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa."
Feser concludes with some kind remarks about me and my work; and I am glad to return the compliment by recommending his outstanding recent book Philosophy of Mind: A Short Introduction. But I venture to suggest that should he again have occasion to comment on Murray Rothbard's worldview, he bear in mind a story told by Oliver Wendell Holmes. When Holmes was a student at Harvard, he showed Ralph Waldo Emerson an essay he had written critical of Plato. Emerson read the essay and said to Holmes, "When you strike at a king, you must kill him."
March 31, 2006
Copyright © 2006 LewRockwell.com