Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sins of the Right: The Moral Poverty of Libertarianism

Conservative talk about ethics tends to fall into one of two camps: Divine Command Theory which asserts God's Will as the source of moral rightness and wrongness and Libertariansim which sets maximizing personal freedom as the single goal of an ethical system. Divine Command Theory was discussed here not long ago in the post "Is Domenech a hypocrite for being a plagiarist and a fundamentalist ? No, but..." Here we will look at Libertarianism.

Libertarianism begins from the notion of rights which may possibly be the most influential moral notion in history. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, human rights; all have been the rallying points from which to try to overturn injustice. Exclusion from full humanity and citizenship is the hallmark of an unjust social structure and the most powerful moral weapon in dismantling of barriers put up by the haves to keep the have-nots out has been the notion of rights.One of the reason this tool has been so effective in correcting injustices done to the have-nots is that the notion of rights is also crucial to the haves.

The place where the concept of rights begins is with property rights, with the erection of social protection structures for the stuff of the rich and the ability to enforce contracts so that the rich have a stable business environment. What property rights do is guarantee that nobody can mess with my stuff and that I’ll get paid if I sell it. The powerful are almost always also the rich and in order to keep what they have in terms of both wealth and power, they rely on the inviolability of a structure based on rights.It was then a very small step to extend the notion of rights from keeping my things safe to keeping my body safe, and then we were off and running declaring moral rights to protect our privacy, access to healthcare, and countless other needs. More and more got packed in until we started seeing rights-based language applied to driving an SUV, regardless of how it impacts the environment or other cars in collisions.

But the problem is that we now throw around the term “rights” without having any real sense of what it means. To fix this, we need to keep legal and moral notions distinct because we both use rights-talk in both cases. If a buddy confided in me that he got herpes from his roommate’s girlfriend and I promised to keep it secret, and then I immediately IM it to a mutual friend, I cannot cite the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in my defense. Breaking confidence while gossiping is not a federal crime, but it does make you a slime bag. Your legal right to free speech means that you cannot be arrested for saying most things, it doesn’t mean that there are no moral responsibilities to watch what you say. Just as in the case of cultural relativism, we had to be careful not to confuse legal with moral, we need to keep legal rights – which again are decided by the whims of a legislative body – distinct in our minds from moral rights.The key to rights-based ethics; in general rights give rise to purely negative duties. Rights don't tell me what I have to do for you, they say what you can’t do to me. For all of the historical heavy-lifting they have done over the last couple of centuries, the moral concept of a right is an extremely weak notion. You can act in a way that doesn’t violate anyone’s rights and still be a complete prick.

Suppose you are taking a walk down the street and you suddenly have what seems at the time to be a great idea. You want to write it down so you don’t forget it, but you don’t have a piece of paper. Suddenly, you realize that you are passing a yard sale and there on the table is an old notebook for a nickel. You buy it and write down your idea. Later, when leafing back through the notebook you come across some strange symbols and a paragraph from the former owner as to their meaning. It turns out that it is the chemical formula for a substance that would be the greatest wonder drug in history. It can cure cancer, AIDS, malaria, sleeping sickness, male-pattern baldness, and erectile dysfunction – every major threat to humanity. You now own this piece of paper because you bought the notebook. In buying that notebook, you acquired the right to use its contents as you see fit. You could turn this piece of paper over to medical science and save the lives and end the suffering of many people. But, if a rights-based ethic were the true moral system, you wouldn’t have to. You can do whatever you want. You could burn it. You could eat it. You could go to oncology wards and wave around the page saying, “I bet you wish you had this.” That page is yours to do with as you please and you don’t have to be a nice guy about it to still be moral according to a rights-based system.

And so Libertarians, who buy into rights-based ethics Locke, stock, and barrel, commit the same sort of error as we saw in the ethical subjectivists, both take a concept that is ethically important and treat it as if it is the only thing that is important. Subjectivists elevate tolerance above all other virtues as libertarians elevate individual freedom above all other moral concerns. Rights are needed to guarantee individual autonomy, and all other things being equal we should defend rights with our very lives if necessary. But life is complex, all other things are never equal. One cannot say enough about how important and wonderful freedom (or tolerance) is. But, as with tolerance, liberty is not the only thing. The notebook example above demonstrates the moral poverty of libertarianism.

While the error is similar, the motivations behind subjectivism and libertarianism are quite different. Subjectivists tend to be folks who want to make sure that everyone, even the least among us is considered equally in our moral deliberation and understand that there is room for moral disagreement. Libertarianism, on the other hand, is generally supported by well-off, well-educated, self-centered white guys who above all else want to make sure that now that they have theirs, a) no one else will take it, and b) they don’t have to feel guilty about not wanting to share it. By focusing exclusively on rights and the resulting freedoms, libertarians free themselves from what we usually think of when we think of morality, that is, being decent, caring, empathetic human beings who actually give a fuck about anyone other than themselves.

This is not to say that everyone who calls him or herself a libertarian is a selfish uncaring clod, but then again, I’m not sure I’d want to marry one either. When the notion of rights is allowed to seep its way into questions of morality around personal relationships, we end up with things like pre-nuptial agreements. The idea of a pre-nup ought to make one feel uneasy. Sure, it clearly sets out who has rights to what should something unfortunate occur within the relationship, but in relationships you do not structure your behavior according to rights. If your sweetie pie receives flowers or chocolates on Valentine’s day because of a perceived right to them or because you see it as fulfilling your end of a contract with your darling, the other clause to be satisfied in a horizontal position, a visit to a couples counselor might be a good thing. Being a good person, being someone living a good moral life, requires more than just avoiding violating the rights of others. It involves actually feeling the pleasure and pain of others, especially those close to you. Morality seems to need to move beyond mere rights to empathy, concern, and care.