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The Limits of Libertarianism and the Promise of a Qualified Care Ethic (pt I)

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  • Jan E Garrett
    Given the lull in the forum and the interest of many of its members in ethics, I thought I would share with you something I have been working on. It will come
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 3, 2000
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      Given the lull in the forum and the interest of many of its members in
      ethics, I thought I would
      share with you something I have been working on. It will come in 4-5
      installments.

      The Limits of Libertarianism and the Promise of a Qualified Care Ethic

      The Problem of Appropriate Kindness

      Most ethical systems have a place for generosity or appropriate
      kindness. The American citizenry,
      rightly or wrongly, expect governmental leaders to display it. This has
      been illustrated in the themes
      of speeches by Presidential candidates. Former V.P. Walter Mondale in
      1984 talked of
      compassion, George Bush in 1988 used the slogan "a kinder, gentler
      America," and George W.
      Bush in 2000 has tried to portray himself as a "compassionate
      conservative."

      Writers in the movement known as care ethics stress the important moral
      roles of mothers, whose
      compassion for their children guides what they do for them. Many would
      agree that a properly
      directed compassion has an important role to play in social life. It
      seems to be the impulse behind
      admirable acts of charity.

      Now, compassion has a very limited place in libertarian ethics.
      Libertarians often distinguish so
      sharply between charity and what we are obliged to do that compassion
      seems to be a mere option,
      not something a morally admirable person would necessarily feel.

      Now, it is logically possible for one to hold the following
      semi-libertarian position. One might think
      that

      (1) government has no role in the compassion business, but

      (2) people have duties as private persons to exercise compassion
      through
      nongovernmental agencies, religious or secular.

      In that case, however, the libertarian view that there are only
      negative [noninterference] rights and no positive rights [rights to
      receive something one needs] or duties would have to be relaxed.
      "Libertarians" of this sort would require a second ethical philosophy to
      guide their duties in the private sphere. (Perhaps it would be a form of
      virtue ethics that included the virtue of generosity.)

      The semi-libertarianism of such a person would be incomplete because it
      would have to be
      "completed" by a second ethical philosophy. But would it even, strictly
      speaking, be libertarianism
      any more? For if A has a duty (even a duty that government ought not
      enforce) to provide B with
      something B needs, then B, in those circumstances, would have a positive
      right to that thing. And this no longer seems to be libertarianism.
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