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David Gauthier once said that the social contract offers ‘the only game in town’ if we hope for a rational morality. I argue that he’s correct. Morality consists of rules notionally directed at everyone everywhere. Only individual people are rational, and they have varying interests. The social contract proposes principles that everyone would, in view of their social and environmental circumstances, agree to as constraining their separate pursuits of their ends. There is no other rational way to understand morals, and so it is indeed the only game in town.
Probably the two most popular notions in normative social theory have been those of liberty and equality. But can we have them both? Or must we take our choice between them? That is our question – but it is not really a clear formulation. Might not someone in a position to promote equality be quite at liberty to choose either way, and choose equality? Of course. Might we be equally at liberty, and might that constitute equality in the relevant sense? Maybe. So long as we leave liberty and equality simply as ideas, it seems quite clear that the idea that we must “choose” between them does not have much plausibility. In many recent books, authors have urged the point that equality and liberty are compatible.1 But that is not what is at issue here. What is at issue is liberty or equality as possible requirements. Our subject is political principles, and politics is concerned, specifically, with the wielding of a certain kind of power. When someone has political power over someone else, the first is in a position to cause the other to be coerced into doing something, and coercion certainly cuts short the liberty of the coerced person, on the face of it.
Let me say, first, that I am grateful for James Sterba's care in stating and restating his and my positions – and also for carefully discussing many writers whom I fail to address in my own piece. I have narrow-mindedly concentrated on developing my own position, discussing mostly the special arguments advanced by Sterba himself, and have been rather ungenerous in attending to the arguments of the many others with whom I am in such sharp disagreement. I am pleased to see that he has in general done such a good job with those writers, sparing me the need to take up valuable space for doing it myself.
The question to address in this concluding brief riposte is of course the central point of disagreement, the central issue that divides us, and thus how to identify that central issue. In my view, this issue arises from the independence of persons. However they may be linked in various groupings, whatever their degrees of affections – or animosities – toward some or many, they are individuals with minds of their own, and they act on their own motivations, their own interests. As I see it, the basic question for moral theory is to what extent this independence is to be trimmed down in response to the impingements of one's fellows. In society, we are able to address each other, to direct praise and blame and to react in more substantial ways to each other's behavior, and the question is, with what aims in view we are to do that.
Aristotle held that equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally. Yet Aristotle's ideal of equality was a relatively formal one that allowed for considerable inequality. Likewise, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all maintained that the equality in the state of nature could be reconciled with significant inequalities in social life. Immanuel Kant too held a view that justified considerable inequalities. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, more substantive ideals of equality, including ideals of economic and social equality, began to be defended by socialists, Marxists, welfare liberals, and feminists alike. As a result, the compatibility of the political ideals of liberty and equality has been seriously brought into question: how could such substantive ideals of equality be reconciled with an ideal of liberty?
Some contemporary political philosophers have sought to resolve the apparent conflict by simply endorsing an ideal of positive rather than negative liberty – one that can clearly be seen to impose the same requirements as a substantive ideal of equality. But this strategy simply begs the question unless we can demonstrate the moral or rational superiority of an ideal of positive liberty in the first place, which seems very difficult, if not impossible, to do.
In this book, Jan Narveson will argue for the incompatibility of the political ideals of liberty and equality, while James P. Sterba will argue for their compatibility.
Are the political ideals of liberty and equality compatible? This question is of central and continuing importance in political philosophy, moral philosophy, and welfare economics. In this book, two distinguished philosophers take up the debate. Jan Narveson argues that a political ideal of negative liberty is incompatible with any substantive ideal of equality, while James P. Sterba argues that Narveson's own ideal of negative liberty is compatible, and in fact leads to the requirements of a substantive ideal of equality. Of course, they cannot both be right. Thus, the details of their arguments about the political ideal of negative liberty and its requirements will determine which of them is right. Engagingly and accessibly written, their debate will be of value to all who are interested in the central issue of what are the practical requirements of a political ideal of liberty.
Is liberty compatible with equality? Following out the strategy proposed in the general introduction, I will seek to answer this question by starting with the libertarian's own ideal of negative liberty and then try to show that that ideal, when correctly interpreted, leads to substantial equality. I will then turn to an examination of other arguments that have sought to support similar conclusions and explain why those arguments are not as effective as my own. Finally, I will consider the main objections to my argument that have been raised by libertarians and my replies to those objections, where I will take up, in particular and at length, Jan Narveson's own objections to my argument from liberty to equality.
The practical requirements of liberty
From liberty to welfare
Libertarians like to think of themselves as defenders of liberty. F. A. Hayek, for example, sees his work as restating an ideal of liberty for our times. “We are concerned,” says Hayek, “with that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as possible in society.” Similarly, John Hospers believes that libertarianism is “a philosophy of personal liberty – the liberty of each person to live according to his own choices, provided that he does not attempt to coerce others and thus prevent them from living according to their choices.”
Engaging in this debate with Jan Narveson has been a valuable experience for me. I know of no better way to defensibly hold a moral and political perspective than by testing one's arguments out against one's philosophical opponents. In this regard, Jan Narveson has proven to be a worthy adversary. In this brief reply, let me see if I can add just a bit to our debate by making the choice between our two perspectives even clearer and starker.
Surprisingly or maybe not so surprisingly, there is a parallel structure to the main arguments that both Jan Narveson and I advance in our essays. We each begin by specifying what negative liberties we think are morally justified. We then go on to claim that our support for those negative liberties cannot rest on morality alone but must have an even more basic foundation. We then attempt to provide that more basic foundation for the negative liberties we support.
Narveson's main argument
Accordingly, Narveson begins by arguing that we all have a morally justified right not to be harmed, hindered, have costs imposed on us, or be made worse off by the actions of others unless we have first inflicted such acts on others. Narveson thinks that this captures the basic right to liberty or noninterference we all possess. He further argues that those who are first to appropriate something do not thereby harm, hinder, impose costs on, or make worse off those who come later.
I present what I take to be the “classical” approach to property rights, in which property is basically a unitary concept: owners are the ones with the right to do, and prohibit others from doing, whatever there is to do with the thing owned, within the limits imposed by the rights of others to their things. I expound and defend the idea of “first acquisition” in more or less Lockean mode. I also point to the many difficulties of application of the general idea, leading to the need to negotiate at many points. For example, the vagueness of land ownership as we consider what goes on in the earth below or the sky above; to consideration of not just possible physical damages to others by virtue of ownership, but also aesthetic ones; and to the increasingly important area of intellectual property. I argue that the original idea continues to hold, though it underdetermines any number of specific issues.
Aggregation in moral philosophy calls for the summing or averaging of values or utilities as a guide to individual behavior. But morality, it is argued, needs to be individualistic, in view of the evident separateness of persons, especially given the great disparities among individuals who nevertheless interact with each other in social life. The most plausible general moral program is the classical liberal (or “libertarian”) one calling for mutual noninterference rather than treating others as equal to oneself in point of demands on our action. Why, then, would we ever aggregate? The reason is that we are affected by behavior that has general effects, especially unintended side effects, on all sorts of people among whom we ourselves are often to be found. When we are randomly situated among such groups—as we sometimes are and often are not—minimizing aggregate harm is the plausible strategy, and sometimes promoting aggregate benefit as well.
The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims about Markets and
Justice, Daniel K. Finn, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006,
pp. ix, 169.
There is a subtitle to this book: “Assessing Claims about
Markets and Justice.” Its aim is not to settle the question of how
just markets are, but rather to identify the framework within which the
morality of markets can be profitably discussed. In the opening chapter,
he takes to task some celebrated economists who, he thinks, try to defend
markets without moral judgment. We can certainly agree that if they really
thought they were doing that, their task was hopeless. But more likely
they felt their moral premises were uncontroversial.