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

Volume 12, Number 3
Fall 2006

The Case for a Robust Ethics of Freedom

Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics. By Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. DenUyl. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005. Xviii + 358 pgs.

This remarkable book is a sustained attempt to solve what its authors term "liberalism's problem." In a liberal society, people are free to live as they wish, so long as they do not violate the rights of others. There is no "official truth", whether religious or secular, that prescribes for people the content of a good life. (The authors are classical liberals rather than adherents of the modern leftist distortion of liberalism; but the problem that concerns them is not confined to classical liberalism.)

But without a fixed conception of the good, what basis is there for a legal system at all? Will not people favor different political arrangements, depending on their views of a good life? The residents of an Amish community, if asked to devise an ideal political system, will probably not reach the identical solution to that of MIT's Department of Political Science. Are there some political principles that people ought to accept, regardless of their views of the good? What moral force do these principles have? Will not any political solution inevitably favor some conceptions of the good over others? If so, the idea of a liberal society cannot be realized.

An influential response to this set of problems reasons in this way: Each person in a society has various desires and interests that he seeks to realize. Almost all these desires and interests require social cooperation to achieve. It is precisely the task of ethics to determine the rules under which social cooperation take place. In contrast to desires and interests, which differ among individuals, the rules bind everyone. With this view of things, we appear well on the way to solving the problem of liberalism: we need only come up with a minimal set of rules that everyone will have reason to accept. (Jan Narveson and James Buchanan are influential supporters of this approach.)

Rasmussen and DenUyl are not satisfied. The view just canvassed confines ethics to rules that apply to everyone. Questions about the good life have no objective answers: here mere preferences reign supreme. In brief, the right is prior to the good:

"The general tendency has been to consider the good as essentially privatized and the right as universalized. The good. . .has come to be regarded as the object of one's own interest, the object of one's desires, or those things one regards as beneficial. It is said to stand in contrast to what one may do with any right. What one may do by right is what is allowed to, or demanded of, or required by, all agents equally and universally. . .there is an inevitable tendency in the distinction between the good and the right to deprecate the moral nature of the good to the enhancement of the right. In other words, what is impartial and universal tends to take precedence over goods, which are, almost by definition now, partial and particular."(pp.22, 26)

They defend instead an Aristotelian view. The good for a person does not consist of his whims and desires, whatever they may be---far from it. Rather, each person has a natural end or function: his leading a flourishing life. This view, which they term perfectionism, "holds that eudaimonia [happiness or flourishing] is the ultimate good or value and that virtue ought to characterize how human beings conduct their lives."(p.111)

Does not a problem at once threaten them? They deny that the good life reduces without remainder to preferences: the good is objective. Yet they are also favor a political system in which people are free to act as they please, so long as they do not initiate or threaten force or fraud. But are there not many actions that fall within these bounds that an objective ethics would condemn? Suppose that I spend most of my days drinking myself into a stupor. I threaten no one with force, but surely I am not living in accord with my Aristotelian natural end. I am doing what is objectively wrong: how then can I have a right to do it?

Many supporters of natural law view matters exactly as these questions suggest. There can be no right to violate the demands of morality. Thus, Heinrich Rommen, a distinguished historian of natural law, remarked that rights are: "the sphere of right that is 'given' with the nature of a person."(p.64) Your rights are defined by your duties, and there cannot be a "right" to do what is wrong.

The authors answer with their key thesis: The mandates of personal ethics do not directly determine the nature of political arrangements. Liberalism is not  "a 'normative political philosophy' in the usual sense. It is rather a political philosophy of metanorms. It seeks not to guide individual conduct in moral activity, but rather to regulate conduct so that conditions might be obtained where moral action can take place. To contrast liberalism directly with alternative ethical systems or values is, therefore, something of a category mistake."(p.34)

The combination of an objective personal ethics with a political system of freedom is, then, logically consistent. But why should we adopt it? Why not, rather, enact a political system whose metanorms require that people conform to their objective end?

The authors' version of ethics excludes this suggestion. They embrace "individualistic perfectionism." There is no fixed pattern to which every individual, in his pursuit of eudaimonia, must conform. Rather, "the generic goods and virtues that constitute human flourishing only become actual, determinate, and valuable realities when they are given particular form by the choices of flesh-and-blood persons. The importance or value of these goods and virtues is rooted in factors that are unique to each person, for it is not the universal as such that is valuable. . .Human flourishing is not simply achieved and enjoyed by individuals, but it is individualized."(pp.132-33)

But does this point require a liberal political order? What if someone claims to know the individualized good of someone better than he does himself? Can he be forced to pursue what is best for him? As usual, the authors have thought of this objection. They hold that only freely chosen activities count as part of the good life: "From this Aristotelian perspective, human flourishing must be attained through an individual's own efforts and cannot be the result of factors that are beyond his or her control. . .The good must, in a central way, be made one's own."(p.86)

Rasmussen and DenUyl, then, have given us a revolutionary proposal. They wish to mix ancient personal ethics with modern liberalism. They thus fly in the face of Alasdair MacIntyre, who indicts liberalism as a form of subjectivism and relativism. But if their proposal is unusual, they can appeal to a great predecessor. Spinoza embraced exactly the same mixture: "Spinoza understood not only that the scope of morality was wider and deeper than the scope of politics, but also that politics was not suited to the production of virtue. He understood these principles from a framework that includes a very robust ethics, that is, an ethics that does not reduce moral excellence to some form of social cooperation, as most liberal theorists do."(pp.44-45; see also the chart on p.14) I do not think it is altogether a coincidence that DenUyl is one of the world's leading authorities on Spinoza's political philosophy.

Have our authors solved the problem of liberalism? They anticipate and respond to a series of objections; but with my usual stubbornness and ill will, I am not convinced. The key to their proposal is that the metanorms are not part of personal morality. They are not part of flourishing: they form the framework within which people try to flourish. Yet they cannot be divorced from ethics altogether: "Human flourishing reveals the need for an ethical principle that will provide the basis for the overall structure of society compatible with the individualized, social, and self-directed character of human flourishing. This is another type or category of ethical principle, since it is not concerned with the issue of flourishing directly."(p.287)

Very good; but all we have been told so far is that the metanorms' type of obligation is not part of a  certain category. We have not been given any reason to think that the metanorms obligate at all.  It might be answered that it is my interest to live in a society that follows the metanorms, but how do we get from interest to obligation? Further, no doubt it is in my interest that the rules of society permit me to flourish; but  why is it in my interest to support a society in which everyone can flourish? Why should I not instead support a society in which only people who adopt my values are free to flourish?

I can clarify these objections with the aid of a very helpful analogy the authors use to explain their position. To distinguish between the normative and metanormative, they invoke baseball: "to say that one obeys the rule of a baseball game while playing is quite different from saying one is a good player or even that one understands what it takes to play well."(p.288) But while it makes no sense to say that someone, apart from playing baseball, is a good pitcher or hitter, it does makes sense to say that someone can flourish outside of a particular metanormative framework. The authors have shown neither that we are obligated to play the metanormative game nor that, even if we must accept some metanormative framework, it must be theirs.

Perhaps the obligatory force of the metanorms does not rest on anything else: we are just supposed to grasp immediately that these metanorms bind us. I have no objection to moral intuitions, quite the contrary; but I do not see how they fit in with the rest of the authors' moral theory. And if one allows such intuitions, then one of their main objections to views that take respecting everyone's right of self-ownership as a basic principle applies to their own position. Our authors object to such views  that "our intuitions give us two equally compelling moral bedrocks: an intuition about there being duty-like(deontic) behavior, on the one hand, and intuitions that reflect on the moral propriety of the pursuit of ends, on the other. Neither one of these is compelling a priori, or at least so in all cases."(p219) If intuitions about the imperative force of metanorms are allowed, Rasmussen and DenUyl are no better off. 1

But enough of criticism. I shall end by calling attention to an excellent point the authors make about property rights. They think that "Locke was mistaken in his contention that God or nature has given mankind a stock of objects (in common or otherwise) from which we must devise a set of rules for just distribution."(p.98) Instead, they say, property is the material expression of action. The right to property then follows from the right to freedom of action. This is but one of many insights in this outstanding work. Also, it is a beautifully organized book: the structured presentation of the argument is carried through in the best Scholastic tradition. It is a work of classic stature that everyone interested in political philosophy needs to study.

1I am not sure whether the authors intend this objection to apply to the views of Murray Rothbard .In fact, it does not, since he does not suggest that we can pursue ends that violate the self-ownership rights of others. Where then is the "conflict" in his system?



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