Political and moral rights
This is adapted from something I posted the other day over at Blinded Trials. I know there are many Friends of Rights who read the front page, and not Blinded Trials, and I’d love to hear their thoughts.
My political intuitions and my moral intuitions are totally out of whack. I know there’s a huge literature on the connection between political theory and moral theory, and I know exactly none of it. My philosophical specialties are philosophy of mind and aesthetics. I know less about political theory than I do about ethics, logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language. I did hear of someone recently who specialized in philosophy of nanotechnology. I probably know more about political philosophy than that. But not all that much. So these musings are extremely ill-informed, but what the heck. I’ll share them anyway!
My ethical leanings are reasonably anti-consequentialist. That is, I don’t think what makes shoplifting a soda right or wrong is a matter of the unhappiness it causes. I lean toward virtue ethics, or a blend of virtue ethics and Kantian ethics. What makes something right or wrong are the character traits it manifests and develops (virtue), or the degree to which it fails to respect a person’s dignity (Kantian). That is, what makes shoplifting wrong is that it exhibits greed, inflated self-centeredness, and lack of sympathy. And it fails to respect the shopkeeper. It does all this even if the shopkeeper never finds out or is never made unhappy about it.
So the other day I was thinking about why I am not a libertarian. Libertarianism kind of matches with Kantian ethics. I am assuming here that a political right is similar to a moral right – that is, something that must not be violated under any circumstances, even if doing so would create better outcomes. It seemed to me that the consequences are so terrible if one is wrong about being libertarian that it was too much of a moral risk to be libertarian. The comments on Alex’s interesting open thread suggested that we are far from certain about how we know which rights we have. There seems to be some connection to moral reasoning, but it’s not clear what it is. If libertarians are right, then of course a wrong is committed by, say, demanding people buy healthcare. But let’s say libertarians are wrong. You actually don’t have a right preventing citizens taking your property against your will in order to promote greater well-being. Then people will die who would not otherwise die. And it seems to me that the moral risk of violating a right by taking some of someone’s property is much lower than the risk of letting people die.
Also, if we have a right that the government not take our property without permission, even if it promotes greater well-being, it should presumably always be enforceable. Which means any tax whatsoever is wrong. That is not a world I would care to live in. Unless I’m damn sure that we really do have a right not to be taxed, I’m going with taxing. And if we tax at all, why limit it simply because it partially respects a right? Aren’t rights absolute? If we think there’s no right not to be taxed, why don’t we tax until the greatest well-being is achieved? In practice, in order to drive competition, I’m guessing that won’t be Sweden high.
Of course, the whole point of libertarianism is that there are some things a government cannot do even if most people, even if everyone would be better off. But, again, how do we know that we have those rights and what we are?
So, in the end, my political feelings are entirely consequentialist. I am pretty much always in favor of pragmatism rather than idealism driving policy. Whichever form of government that promotes the greatest well-being (NB: by which I mean flourishing or eudaimonia, NOT the greatest amount of pleasure) is one that seems less risky.
Then I thought about why I do favor some rights. For example, the government really ought to leave you and your property alone unless it is clearly justifiable for the promotion of the greater good (and I thought Kelo was an overstep). And democracy is pretty good. And it’s nice that you can criticize the government without fear of retribution. When I think about why I support those rules, though, it’s because those sorts of rules tend to promote the kind of society where well-being can reach its maximum. It’s not because of the rights in and of themselves. It’s because I think those rights are useful. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them. Really, it’s rule-utilitarian.
So, my question is, is this a mismatch? Do I have to do some serious re-jiggering of either my ethical or (more likely) my political view? I tend to think I don’t for two reasons. But I’m really not sure, and if I still have any readers of this post who’ve made it through this far, I’d love to hear from you.
First of all, the government is not a person. Rights and duties are supposed to be correlative. People have rights in virtue of respect for their rationality (or other cognitive qualities). The government, as a body, doesn’t have rationality (ha!) or cognitive properties. So can it have duties to us? Even if there’s some way to say that it does have duties to us, are they the same duties a person has to us? We certainly don’t have the same duties to government that we do to a person! For example, we don’t respect government’s autonomy – we try to interfere to make it suit our preferences, whether those preferences are ideological or pragmatic. We try to set its ends for it. This would be a violation of a person’s rights.
Second reason is that the moral risk is much lower respecting rights in person-to-person ethics than in government-to-person ethics. Kantian ethics does a halfway decent job of capturing our moral intuitions. When followed by people in their everyday lives, untoward consequences usually do not occur. So we don’t incur a risk by respecting Kantian moral rights. Yet, arguably, some risk of worse consequences is incurred by respecting libertarian-style political rights.
I would love to have some feedback from people who know more about this than I do.