My Response to Dr. Post’s Positive Review of LPRW

As noted in my last post, Libertarian Philosophy in the Real World (“LPRW”) received a favorable review from Dr. Matthew Post in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy. At the risk of “looking a gift horse in the mouth,” I offer my thoughts here about his comments. As mentioned in my earlier post, this review occurs in connection with the author’s efforts to find a plausible way to justify political liberalism in face of what he regards as the formidable obstacles erected by Richard Rorty. This contemporary philosopher has offered a highly influential critique of all attempts to ground philosophical reasoning, including with respect to politics, in any underlying objective truths or “foundations,” which he regards as disguised appeals to social conventions and practices. See Post, 478-9. 

In pursuit of his inquiry, Post first considers the approaches on display in two anthologies devoted to liberalism and rights, recently published by the Cambridge Univ. Press: The Cambridge Companion to Liberalism (“CCL”), Steven Wall, ed. (2015) and The Meanings of Rights: The Philosophy and Social Theory of Rights (“MR”), Costas Douzinas and Conor Gearty, eds. (2014), before turning to my book. In order to keep this post to a reasonable length, I will briefly focus on these volumes only to the extent necessary to provide the necessary context for Dr. Post’s comments regarding LPRW.

I believe it’s fair to say that neither anthology includes what Dr. Post regards as a definitive solution to Rorty’s challenge.[1] The contributors to CCL are generally concerned with exploring how a liberalism not grounded in objective moral truths, can uphold the crucial values of pluralism and autonomy. Suggested solutions to the former include public reason liberalism, while another contributor argues that a reliance on the imperative of “shared goals” might substitute for the value of autonomy in our moral logic. See Post, 482-3. Although praising the contributors in CCL for “exploring how we make prudential judgments and derive principles of justice with great rigor and insight while opening new avenues for thought,” Post concludes that “the challenges to liberalism presented at the end of CCL thus remain challenges.” Post, 483.

It appears that Post is somewhat more hopeful with respect to the approach taken in the MR anthology, at least by one of the authors, Chantal Mouffe. In general, these philosophers accept Rorty’s epistemology, and they therefore, according to Post, “seek not to vindicate human reason’s capacity to reveal [objective] truth, but rather to develop alternatives that may yield a compelling or workable notion of rights.” Post, 484.

Post praises Mouffe’s contribution, in which she observes that other cultures reject autonomy as a paramount value, and therefore recommends (as summarized by Post) “suspending judgment when it comes to irreconcilable differences and areas in which there may be a complete lack of communication.” Post, 485. He suggests that her approach is “one of the more promising avenues because it gives an argument for peace without the need for universal agreement or a common ground of understanding.” Post. 486. Yet, he notes, while this strategy may reduce conflicts between communities, “disagreements about the good life within a group, at least in the West (though surely not just in the West), are pressing, and it is still problematic for us to be without clearer guidelines for how to handle them.” Post, 487.

This brings me to Post’s evaluation of LPRW.  He begins by correctly observing that my work “does not actively examine whether reason is capable of giving truth, [yet, Post observes]…it follows the path not taken by CCL and MR, adopting the assumption that reason is capable of giving foundations that are normative and true in the form of a natural rights doctrine.” He suggests that one way to reconcile this tension is to see my invocation of Kant’s and Locke’s ethics as not resting “on metaphysical presuppositions but rather on practical experiences in which individuals typically want to be treated as ends not means, and in which they want their property to be respected in the way Locke proposes.” If so, “then [Friedman’s] refusal to address reason’s capacity to give such foundations is less objectionable.” Post, 488.

Post finds support for this interpretation in my earlier book, Nozick’s Libertarian Project (“NLP”), where he claims I “again refuse to argue that reason gives truth, referring instead to “commonsense moral judgments” and to what is “intuitively obvious.” He suggests that this may serve my purposes in LPRW as well, by enabling me to “offer strategic compromises to advance libertarian polices as well as argumentative devices to convince others of its merits.” He cites as an example my reticence about taking a firm moral stand on the ethics of abortion, thereby making space for reliance on “a majoritarian view provided there is no clear rational argument in favor of one side or the other.” Post, 489.

Happily, Post correctly recognizes that I am doing more in LPRW than appealing to common sense and popular opinion:

As we saw, he…seems to rely on readers’ intuitive acceptance of [Kantian and Lockean] principles. His arguments therefore work on a variety of levels, partly drawing on authority, on argument, on opinion, and so on. While virtually none of the authors in MR would be sympathetic to Friedman’s views, their assault on reason while still using reason and their emphasis on profound disjunctions between groups while still trying to explain the perspectives of those groups essentially recommend Friedman’s strategy. Without any basis for truth or common understanding, all that remains is to use a modicum of reason in a way that appeals to people in our camp while doing what we can to appeal to others who have similar enough views.” Post, 489.

Putting aside the strength (or weakness) of the specific arguments I make in LPRW, there is some truth in Post’s appraisal of my method. There are modern philosophers, Rand and Rothbard come to mind, who do attempt to move directly from putative metaphysical truths to moral/political conclusions.[2] Robert Nozick, my primary intellectual influence, takes a different approach in his classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

As I outline in some depth in NLP (16-29), Nozick starts with a “mid-level” ethical principle that seems unassailable: “people are inviolable” (ASU, 28), meaning that persons enjoy a special moral status (relative to other known beings), such that there exist very stringent—although not absolute—constraints on how they may be treated. Given this premise, he delves into the source of this inviolability, which he determines to be our species’ capacity for rational agency. From here he derives the libertarian conception of moral and political rights, under which there is a very powerful presumption against governmental coercion of innocent persons.

In LPRW I give a briefer review of Nozick’s argument. As Post seems to recognize, adopting Nozick’s assumption of persons’ special moral status has the virtue of aligning with something like a universal consensus. Few people, whatever their meta-ethical stance, would reject this idea.

However, at the risk of disappointing Dr. Post, I should probably disclose at this point that I am an old-fashioned moral realist, meaning that I believe that there are objective moral truths, and that we can know at least some of them. This claim was not placed front and center in LPRW because, as I asserted in NLP, there is no good reason for a political philosopher to enter this impenetrable thicket:

While I believe that there are plausible answers to the moral nihilist, to give this subject a fair treatment would require quite an extended discussion and take us far from the guts of political philosophy. In the notes I offer a brief outline of what I consider to be the most promising strategy for establishing the objectivity of moral values…In any case, since all political doctrines are built on some set of ethical presuppositions, the problem of moral subjectivity presents no special difficulty for libertarians. NLP, 21.

Thus, my critique in LPRW of our state’s laws and institutions as built on impermissible coercion does not rest on practical facts about how people wish to be treated, but on the stronger (in my view) claim that they have the moral right not to be used this fashion without their consent. Thus, at various times I describe the policies of our welfare state as “fundamentally unjust” (p.43), “morally offensive” (68), “morally reprehensible” (111), etc. This rights-based argument is not blunted by the disturbing fact that most voters appear to have no objection to these practices.

My discussion of the ethics of abortion is an exception, because in this case I am speaking not as a moral critic of the welfare state, but undertaking a different task altogether. That is, advancing the argument that whatever position particular movement figures take on this issue, it flows not from core libertarian principles, but from a different set of normative judgments.[3] It is in this context that I say that “libertarian theory offers us no good reason to reject [the majority opinion].” (LPRW, 159).

As for my appeal to commonsense moral judgments and intuitions, I’m afraid that I can’t claim any special credit. Indeed, the use of thought experiments to trigger our moral intuitions is a classic device used by almost all philosophers to support or impugn competing views, without having to formally refute them. This technique is only effective if the proponent knows that most of the audience shares her “gut” reaction. One quite famous example is the “trolley problem,” which Judith Jarvis Thompson has used effectively to discredit crude versions of utilitarianism.

In summary, I greatly appreciate the attention Post has devoted to my book, and his general praise for the quality of my arguments. However, I believe he has in a sense been attempting to force the square peg of my method into the round hole of his preferred (“non-metaphysical”) strategy. While I did not feel the need to make a major point of it, in LPRW my arguments rely on the demands of objective morality. While I cannot decisively rebut Rorty’s skepticism, neither he nor anyone else has settled the question of the objective/subjective nature of moral judgments, a controversy that has been raging for centuries.[4] Thus, I am not in the least embarrassed by proceeding as I have.

Putting aside for a moment Post’s assessment of LPRW, his essay is an interesting and provocative analysis of a subject that has received insufficient attention in the literature. In these times, I believe truth has taken an awful beating, and so the question he poses is worthy of deep consideration. His essay is well worth reading.

____________

[1] Post forthrightly acknowledges the difficulty of discussing anthologies as a “unit.”

[2] Utilitarians and luck egalitarians might also fall into this category, in that they proceed on the assumption that utility and equality of outcomes, respectively, are intrinsic values, without actually supplying any argument to this effect.

[3] Regarding my support for taxation to fund law enforcement in a tolerably just state (see LPRW, 28-9, 185 n.27), this endorsement is not simply because, as Post seems to think, that its absence would be highly “disadvantageous” (Post, 489). Rather, it is, in addition, that people are entitled to the impartial enforcement of justice as a matter of right (a “state does not act unjustly if it taxes coercively to support those functions that safeguard our autonomy…Thus, coercive taxation to fund the minimal state may be defended by appealing to fundamental libertarian values.” LPRW, 29). Perhaps I could have been clearer here, but in my defense I do cross-reference the much fuller discussion in NLP.

[4] There is a school of thought in moral philosophy that holds that anti-realists are able to make the same arguments, with the same argumentative force, as those formulated by realists. See Section 5 (Semantics) of the SEP entry “Moral Realism,” linked to in the text. This is a highly controversial and complex claim, and far beyond the scope of Post’s essay; but if true would cut the Gordian Knot that Post believes to be posed by Rorty. It would also let me off the hook for “refus[ing] to address reason’s capacity to give such foundations.”

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