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What I mean by "libertarian theory of moral responsibility"

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  • Jan E Garrett
    The libertarianism I have in mind is not metaphysical libertarianism (a view in the free will/determinism debate according to which human beings are free only
    Message 1 of 2 , Dec 1, 1999
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      The libertarianism I have in mind is not metaphysical libertarianism (a
      view in the free will/determinism debate according to which human beings
      are free only because determinism is metaphysically false and
      indeterminism is true); nor is it the civil libertarian philosophy,
      according to which civil liberties are vitally important political
      conditions that should be promoted and defended (in relation to which
      the American Civil Liberties Union is perhaps the best known group, at
      least in the U.S.). It is the political philosophy according to which
      ethics is a matter of respecting rights and the only rights that exist
      are the noninterference rights of individuals. The problem is that in
      practice libertarians tend to focus on property rights, which are
      regarded as near-absolutes; they tend to assume that persons who are not
      popularly known as criminals and have property came by it in a
      legitimate way; so that in practice libertarianism becomes a kind of
      ideology of the propertied class for holding on to what it already has.
      They tend also to assume that one deserves whatever one has; that the
      person who is without resources was probably lazy or negligent and
      therefore lost out in the competitive marketplace. This goes along with
      their opposition to government programs to increase the resources
      available to the least materially advantaged sections of the population;
      which programs the libertarians regard as invasions of the property
      rights of propertyholders.

      There is a "family resemblance" (similarity but not identity) between
      the Stoic view that goods and evils are up to us and this last
      view/attitude of the libertarians. It would be erroneous were we to
      slide from the one to the other.
    • Andrew Brien
      Hi folks: Quite a lot of interesting issues have been raised here over the past little while. Two I d like to pick up. This is in haste so please forgive the
      Message 2 of 2 , Dec 6, 1999
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        Hi folks:
        Quite a lot of interesting issues have been raised here over the past
        little while. Two I'd like to pick up. This is in haste so please forgive
        the typos. First:
        Jan raised a couple of points about libertarianism. Political
        libertarianism certainly does as he says focus on property rights; but that
        is only one aspect of that ideology. libertarians are also committed to
        three other views.
        The first is the nature of explanation of social phenomena. For
        libertarians "society" does not really exist as some distinct entity or as
        a source of explanation for a person's actions. What exists are a whole lot
        of interacting individuals. And the only morally acceptable form of
        interaction, according to a libertarian, is contract and agreement, that
        sets out the rights of each party. Libertarians then see other people as
        right holders and their moral theory is a rights based moral outlook.
        Individuals can either trade rights or forfeit them [if, for example, they
        steal from another.] Hence they champion workplace contracts and actively
        work to destroy labor unions. [the fact that this is often just a front for
        protecting the property of the politically and socially powerful against
        the legisimate claims of the less well off, need not concern us at this
        So when we try to explain what goes on in a community such explanations
        must ultimately be reduced to the "choices" and volitions, rights and so on
        of individual people. This reductionism leads to the second key element of
        libertarianism: individualism.
        The third view they are committed to is that individuals are unencumbered.
        They exist before society or community or the group. So individuals, both
        in fact and in personality, are prior to "society" ie structured groups of
        individuals. This is a thesis about the nature of a person's identity and
        personality. Humans do not, according to this view, have an innate social
        One way to see the relationship between libertarianism and individualism -
        and it is only one way - between libertarianism and individualism is like
        this. Individualism is a view about the basic moral element in a collection
        of people: the individual person; and the fact that they exist prior to any
        social group. Their identity arises not from living in a community but
        "prior" to the community. Libertarianism is a view about the way these
        individuals ought to interact.

        I think we can see why stoics would reject libertarianism and
        individualism. For stoics, humans are social creatures. They do derive a
        portion of their identity from livinig in community with others. As well,
        we flourish and can flourish as individuals and as people only in
        community. Moreover, we explain actions not merely by reference to a
        person's own individual choices but by looking at how their social
        circumstances have influenced those choices. [cf Seneca De Clem] While the
        stoa accepts individuality it rejects individualism. We are not
        unemcumbered, according to the stoa.
        Moreover, the stoa would not accept that virtuous interaction is carried on
        only by way of trading rights, contract and so on. Ethical interaction is
        much richer than that, and involves right choice, at the appropriate time
        for the right reason, exemplifying as it should those traits of character
        with exemplify a person flourishing as a member of a community.
        The fundimental difference is that the stoa is socially orientated, as
        Seneca makes clear again and again, while libertarians are essentially
        individually minded; the former taking altruism, co-operation and other
        concern as the foundation of their stance was they move through the world;
        the latter, the libertarians, taking selfishness, competition and rational
        selfinterest as the basic elements of their stance.
        There are enormous implications for sotics in this fundimental difference,
        especially those stoics who work in government. Eg. stoicism does allow
        that one person may know another best interest better than that other
        person may know themselves; thus is licences a sort of parentalism under
        certain circumstances; libertarianism does not really allow parentalism
        since it claims that one person may not really know another's best interest
        better than they do. Hence, libertarians champion the greatest range of
        choice in economic markets, since this represents freedom [more choice is
        better than less] and the basic moral view that one person should not
        intrude upon another person's choice of goods or services as that other
        perosn does not and cannot know what is good for the other person. So the
        libertarian is committed to using the invisible hand as a distribution
        mechanism for goods and servides; stoics would use is only where it
        actually worked and did not harm people. So for stoics in areas devising
        puublic policy and writing laws, or formulating economic policy, the
        paradigm current in the world - that of libertarianism and individualism
        is not only philosophically wrong, but also bad public policy. People
        simply are not as libertarians[and individualism] assumed them to be.

        A few weeks ago there was an exchange about whether stoics can love and
        experience emotion. I have not got into my shed to get out my primary
        source books. But I remain unconvinced by Larry and Keith.

        Amongst academic writers here there are two views. One view, which Keith
        and Larry share is that stoics muct be committed to the extirpation of the
        passions. This is also shared, I understand by Brad Hooker. Another view,
        which is the one I take, is that the stoics are committed not to the
        extirpation of all passions but the management of those which foster our
        social beings, eg love and friendship, but control and avoidance and
        ultimate extirpation of those which do not, such as anger. William O
        Stephens (Oxf Stud in anc Phil) discusses this in relation to Epictetus, I
        recall. Julia annas discusses this in The morality of Happiness. And it is
        how I read Seneca De Ira and De Clementia.

        The two issues are: do all passions necessarily affect the capacity for
        accurate judgement? Some do; some don't; all can, if not properly
        controlled. This is the answer to the old problem of how the stoa would be
        capable of accommodating friendship.

        Second, emotional states such as love and friendship indifferent from the
        point of view of eudaimonia? again, the answer is no. They are necessary
        elements of it. Again, it is a matter of control.

        I suspect that the early stoa differed from later stoics on these points.

        Unfortunately I do not have my primary sources at hand or the secondary
        sources, such as Annas and my comments are based on my recollection and
        also an email exchange i had with William O. Stephens.

        It is certainly an issue worthy of detailed study, since the capacity of
        stoicism to accommodate friendship was a problem that bedeviled the ancient
        stoa. See Pakulak.


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