The Limits of Libertarianism and the Promise of a Qualified Care Ethic (pt I)
- 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
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
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
(1) government has no role in the compassion business, but
(2) people have duties as private persons to exercise compassion
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.