I have claimed in a number of my recent posts that libertarians have failed to recognize the potential for authoritarianism in their refusal to submit their property claims to the test of public justification. Ordinary, unreconstructed libertarians must be prepared to use coercion to impose property rights claims on those who reasonably reject libertarianism. If such coercion isn’t publicly justified, I think it is oppressive.
Many have protested my claims. One of my friends and co-bloggers has even claimed that the test of public justification requires libertarians to tolerate injustice, which seems really awful. In this post, rather than making the same arguments again, I’m going to try to get libertarians (and others) worried about the problem public justification is supposed to solve, namely the problem of moral authority.
I: The Moral State of Nature
Let us imagine for the sake of argument a moral state of nature. In this state of nature, each person recognizes that there exists a moral law, some objective set of prescriptions about what she must do. However, she disagrees with her neighbors about how to interpret the moral law, in some cases quite strongly. But at the moment, they recognize no adjudicative norms in common. In other words, members of the moral state of nature do not recognize any duties to resolve their disputes about the interpretation of the natural law in ways all consider authoritative. Each person decides for herself what she thinks is right, and she defers to the judgment of no one else. She must be moral, after all, and someone else might lead her astray.
The member of the moral state of nature might decide that some people know more than she does, and so she takes them to be more reliable indicators of what the moral law requires, but she regards them as purely epistemic authorities – their judgments about right action are more often correct, and so they are good sources of information. They are not moral authorities for her because she acknowledges no duty to comply with their judgments. Their judgments are just good advice.
To be more specific, no one in the moral state of nature acknowledges a moral duty to comply with another’s interpretation of the moral law that overrides her own judgment. In other words, in the moral state of nature, Reba denies that anyone has the right to blame her or hold her accountable for actions that in their view violates the moral law, but not hers.
II: What’s Wrong With the Moral State of Nature
Now, what is wrong with such a world? Well, for one thing persons will often find themselves in conflict with one another, probably all the time since they acknowledge no common, authoritative moral rules other than their interpretations of the moral law.
What will people do? In many cases, they’ll use violence to get their way. Other times they may pursue peace to avoid the risk of getting hurt or killed. But by stipulation they do not acknowledge that a dispute has been resolved by a mutually recognized, authoritative moral rule, that is, a rule that is mutually recognized as overriding an individual’s private judgment.
A regime of moral rules helps to resolve these disputes because persons will take themselves to have reason to comply with publicly, mutually recognized moral rules, and so can appeal to authoritative social mechanisms to resolve conflicts and the fear of conflict in ways mutually recognized as moral. We can therefore avoid coercion, including state coercion. So we have one reason to leave the moral state of nature and put on relations of moral authority.
Another reason to seek moral authority is to avoid people’s responses when they believe you have committed a moral infraction. What do people do when they think you have acted immorally? They will frequently blame you, resent you, lower their evaluation of your character and sever relationships with you. Think about road rage as an example. Even if you act according to your own interpretation of the moral (traffic) law, other people interpret and apply the laws differently, and thus come to see you as committing infractions. This means that sometimes the road is not a pleasant place to be. So the second reason to leave the moral state of nature is to avoid the costs imposed by social ostracism and blame, not just threats to person and property.
But these two reasons (protecting person, stuff and psyche) fail to fully satisfy. They only show that moral authority has instrumental value. I think moral authority is desirable because it is a constitutive means to a number of crucial social goods. That is, relations of moral authority are part of what is required to have the sorts of complex social relationships we all value highly.
III: The Good of Moral Relations
In the moral state of nature, your relationships with others are insecure and unstable. You have no moral rules to resolve your disputes and so no commonly acknowledged way to take legitimate responsibility for your actions in the eyes of others. Further, you have no commonly acknowledged method of making amends to those you hurt, since they recognize that you acknowledge no reason to defer to their judgments about your behavior if you do the same thing in the future. The idea, briefly, is that without moral authority, we cannot ground the relations of accountability and responsibility required to treat one another not only as equal citizens, but as friends, neighbors and family.
Human well-being depends on getting along with one another on moral terms in each other’s eyes. Think about how hurt and upset we become at even the most mild moral infractions committed against us and those we love, and think about how quickly we can feel guilty for committing the same infractions. As children, we demand that our sisters and brothers “Take it back!” because their disapprobation obsesses us, enrages us and brings us to tears.
You may be skeptical, but I submit that the moral state of nature requires such a radical departure from normal human social functioning that it is hard to imagine the sort of alienation it would provoke. We rarely recognize the huge number of morally authoritative social norms we implicitly acknowledge in day to day life. Without them, we would spontaneously evolve them to avoid the problems I have pointed to.
Some individualist libertarians may think people should just toughen up, but I don’t think anyone seriously believes this in their hearts. Rousseau and Hume were right to point out that the sentiments of others shape our emotional and mental health, along with our very identities. The benefits of moral authority, then, are massive, as they enable the achievement of the greatest of all social goods – being on good terms with one’s family, friends, colleagues and fellow citizens.
And if Ficthe, Hegel and their followers are correct, then we cannot even identify persons outside of the social recognition assigned to them by others. Not only do the sentiments of others shape who we are, they can often define us, even in our own eyes. To be recognized as a moral being by others, for Ficthe and Hegel, is to become a full human being. Moral infractions not only make us feel bad but diminish us as persons.
IV: Libertarians Need Moral Authority
Most libertarians will grant the instrumental benefits of moral authority. But as I understand the libertarian political tradition over the last forty years, few have tried to integrate a thoroughly social model of moral psychology into their political philosophy. In fact, most libertarians think that the case for libertarianism should be independent of these facts about our moral psychology, namely our need for full moral personality via compliance with mutually authoritative moral norms.
But I think libertarians enormously err in this regard because they miss one of the greatest potential virtues of a libertarian political order – its extraordinary capacity to generate genuinely moral forms of cooperation that enable us to enjoy enormous social goods. Libertarians can and should argue that strict limits on state coercion are necessary for moral authority to do its redeeming work and to allow communities to build moral relations with one another, rather than simply resting their associations on who has more power.
The cost of accepting this picture of moral authority is acknowledging the need for authoritative arbiters. These arbiters need not be nation-states, or even coercive bodies, or heck, even agents – they can be social processes of many kinds. But I do think a case for political authority – the authority to use force – emerges from concerns about moral authority and disagreement. I shall speak to that in another post.
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