Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Liberty as a Precondition

Spring 1999

Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl
Edward Elgar, 1997, vii + 85 pgs.

This is a favorable review (yes, I sometimes write them) but it is one I fear the authors will not entirely like. They place great stress on a theory that I think mistaken, to the limited extent I have grasped it. Their principal contribution lies elsewhere, to my mind. They criticize, to devastating effect, the attacks on classical liberalism launched by the political theorist John Gray and the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Here lies the heart of their book, not in the mare's nest of their pet "metanormativity" thesis.

First, some background. Rasmussen and Den Uyl are in the Randian tradition, though not of the strictest observance. Like Miss Rand, they view ethics as a means by which persons can best flourish. Ethical egoism (though not, I hasten to add, selfishness in the ordinary language sense) is the order of the day. Our authors, unlike some Randian acolytes, do not stress as the summum bonum each person's bare survival. Rather, like Aristotle, they emphasize man's flourishing according to a particular conception of the good life. This conception they have been at great pains to expound in their earlier and more extensive study, Liberty and Nature. (Yes, I have also reviewed that book favorably.)

Their view of ethics strikes me as somewhat off the mark. Do we not have moral obligations to others, not reducible to ways of perfecting ourselves? Of course, we do, it seems to me: but this appeal to moral intuition will no doubt fall on deaf ears to all Randians in even approximately good standing. But it is not my purpose to press this or other criticisms against our co-authors. Even if I am right that morality does not consist entirely of each person's endeavor to flourish, clearly the union of Douglases has grasped an important part of the truth. Human flourishing (Aristotle's eudaimonia) is crucial to sound morality. And this is all that need be granted our authors, for their critique of Gray and MacIntyre to proceed.

John Gray, readers of The Mises Review, will recall, has been a frequent target in these pages; and I rejoice to see the surgical precision of their strikes at his position. Gray, like his mentor Isaiah Berlin, professes value-pluralism. Values are not, Gray thinks, mere subjective preferences; states of affairs are objectively good or bad.

Though values are objective, they cannot be ranked on a common scale. They are necessarily plural and incommensurable. "Versions of human flourishing are incommensurable when two conditions are fulfilled: when neither is better than the other, that is, they are incomparable, and where another version of human flourishing is better than one of the other two valuable forms of flourishing but not better than the other" (p. 45).

That is quite a mouthful, but it isn't as bad as it sounds. Suppose that you are indifferent between vanilla and chocolate ice cream. You prefer pistachio to vanilla, but you do not prefer pistachio to chocolate. Then for you chocolate and vanilla are incommensurable.

Of course, a question has at once sprung to your mind: why does any of this rigmarole matter? I shall not shirk this issue, but first an Austrian digression. To students of Mises and Rothbard, a criticism of incommensurability should at once be obvious. (I regret to say that I stupidly missed the point in my reviews of Gray. Perhaps I need to attend the Mises University, as a student.)

Rothbard and Mises cogently argue that indifference cannot be demonstrated in action. If you accept their contention, then incommensurability cannot get off the ground, since it assumes indifference. Further, intransitivity of preferences is according to some philosophers irrational, though the point is quite controversial. Suffice it to say that if you have intransitive preferences you can in readily imaginable circumstances find yourself in a constantly worse off state of affairs. But all this is by the way.

To return to the matter at hand: why does Gray make such a big to-do over incommensurability? He thinks that, if taken to heart, the concept ruins classical liberalism. According to classical liberals, there is a single best political system. You won't find Rothbard, e.g., saying that a free-market society may or may not be the best system. In his emphatically expressed opinion, no doubt on the question is possible.

But if Gray is right about values, how can Rothbard be correct? A free-market order, he may grant Rothbard, best realizes the value of liberty. But that is simply one value among many. We cannot say, then, that a classical-liberal society is without reservation better than one that gives more stress to order and hierarchy. Since values are incomparable and incommensurable, a classical-liberal order is of local rather than universal interest. In insisting on its own primacy, classical liberalism is insufficiently liberal about values.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl reply to Gray with a jujitsu tactic. Rather than resist his claim, they carry it to further length in order to turn the tables on him. The problem with Gray, they hold, is not that he has overstressed the incomparability of values. Quite the contrary, he has not emphasized it enough.

What Gray has failed to grasp, they hold, is that values are relative (though objective) to each agent. Each person, you will recall, is on their conception properly concerned with his own flourishing. What is valuable to me, then, may not at all be valuable to you.

But how does this make the task of defending classical liberalism any simpler? Does it not intensify the problem? If values are relative to each person, how can we possibly defend the claim that a free-market order is the best society, with no ifs, ands, or buts?

Here our authors display their most innovative notion. Just because each individual must "work out his own salvation in fear and trembling" a new question arises. Within what framework can each individual best pursue his own flourishing? This may well turn out to be just the classical liberal order that Gray has dismissed as overly parochial.

But why does agent-relativity enable classical liberalism to make a comeback, while Gray's value-pluralism does not? Gray compares the values of one society with those of another: thus the question of the best society, all things considered, cannot arise for him. Precisely because they carry forward value-relativism to a greater extent than Gray, Den Uyl and Rasmussen can raise an issue to which Gray is blind. And, once more, you need not accept their moral theory to recognize the cogency of their inquiry. So long as you admit that human flourishing is an important part of morality, their challenge to Gray retains much of its force. Having praised our authors, I must inject one note of caution. They regard their point about the framework as not a moral issue at all. In their terms, it is a "metanormative" rather than a "normative" notion. I cannot at all see what they are getting at, though I fear bias has undone me. In my review of their earlier tome, I suggested that they abandon metanormativity. Instead, they in this book beat the drums for the notion even more. Oh, well!

MacIntyre, though more influential than Gray, is an easier target. He maintains that "the liberal regime, by enforcing the basic right to liberty, destroys traditional forms of community life that embody people's efforts to pursue their flourishing. A liberal regime acts as a detriment to the lives of people by allowing their basic institutions to be destroyed" (p. 62).

Readers may readily guess the main lines of Rasmussen's and Den Uyl's response. The customs of a community are not an absolute but have value only to the extent they promote human flourishing. If a society does not offer a suitable framework for the pursuit of virtue, why hold it to be a valuable set of institutions?

MacIntyre's apparent assumption that the standards for judging a society are completely internal is rank moral conventionalism: Whatever people put into practice in their society is right.

Surely this is an implausible view. And MacIntyre has given us no reason to think that a classical-liberal order cannot flourish, along with the citizens for whom its institutions provide the framework for the pursuit of happiness.


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