Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s Meta-Norms for Flourishing Individuals

Philosophical defenders of libertarianism vary greatly from one to another about how robust the metaphysical and/ or moral premises are on which their respective defenses depend. The advantage of modest premises is that they are less contentious. One does not have to start out with premises that may be more difficult to defend than the conclusions one hopes to reach by relying upon them. On the other hand, modest premises may lack the heft to support pleasingly robust conclusions. Of the philosophical defenders of libertarianism discussed in this book, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl have taken most seriously the need to provide hefty philosophical underpinnings for libertarianism and have most boldly sought to defend these underpinnings.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl (hereafter, R&DU) take very seriously a range of criticisms that both leftists and conserva- tives have directed at liberalism at large. According to these criticisms, liberalism relies upon and reinforces a “very narrow, instrumental, and minimalistic understanding of values and ethical life.” Liberal toleration is often defended on the relativist basis that, since no beliefs are objectively correct, no one’s beliefs can ever justify the suppression of the views or activities of others. But, of course, if no beliefs are objectively correct, it is not objectively correct that the suppression of another’s views or activities justifies the other party’s complaint or resistance.19 Liberals have often defended liberty on the ground that it maximizes the satis- faction of desires, whatever those desires happen to be; and this non-judgmental basis for liberty is threatened as soon as one begins to distinguish between worthy and unworthy or proper and improper desires. Liberals represent principles of justice as merely terms of convenience that minimize friction and collision among creatures bent on doing and attaining whatever they have been conditioned to want to do or attain.

R&DU’s first goal is to recapture the richer conception of the good human life that they find in the Aristotelian tradition – a tradition that they take to be individualist at least in the sense that its primary teaching concerns how an individual can live a flourishing life, a life of human well-being.

[C]lassical ethics … takes the central problem of ethics to  be what to make of one’s own life and is thus “self-perfec-  tionist” in its orientation. … [T]he enterprise of ethics is  fundamentally directed toward perfecting the self, with social  management being derived from (or not in conflict with) the  principles thought necessary for self-perfection.

(2005: 115)

Their second goal is to show how a liberal political order is the appropriate accompaniment to that “self-perfectionist” ethical order. “We do not need to minimize the moral universe to support liberalism, nor do we need to ground morality in sentiment or contracts, as much as traditional liberalism has done, to generate a liberal politics” (2005: 15). Indeed, they seek to show that a libertarianorder that centers on a natural right to liberty is the appropriate political concomitant to the neo-Aristotelian understanding of human values and purposes that they develop and defend.

While we cannot here do justice to the ethical vision that R&DU expound, we can touch on five of its crucial charac- teristics. The first is an insistence on the objective value of the conditions or activities that are constitutive of human flourishing. Such conditions as knowledge, health, friendship, and creative achievement – as they are attained within the particular lives of persons – make the lives in which they are attained valuable. This value explains why one should desire and commit oneself to the attainment of these states rather than these conditions being valuable because they are desired or the objects of commitment. “[F]lourishing is an object of desire because it is desirable and choice-worthy, not simply because it is desired or chosen” (2005: 127). The second is the contention that friendship – or, more generally, sociality – is prominent among the conditions that make for human flourishing. This is the core basis for R&DU’s rejection of the charge that liberalism manifests and is committed to an atomistic view of human beings and social existence [R&DU 2006].20 The third is R&DU’s philosophical explanation for the value of the conditions and activities that comprise human well-being. As Aristotelians, R&DU maintain that these conditions and activities are valuable because they are fulfillments of our natural potentialities. Flourishing for any sort of living thing consists in its realization or actual- ization of its nature. For human beings, flourishing consists in the realization or actualization of the potentialities that constitute human nature. “[T]he meaning and purpose of morality are to be found in terms of a human being’s ‘self- perfection’ or ‘self-actualization’ or ‘human flourishing’” (2005: 124). This third feature is the most metaphysically ambitious and controversial component of R&DU’s stance.21

The fourth key feature of R&DU’s position is the individu- alization of human flourishing and its value (2005: 132). The abstract specification of fundamental human goods – such as knowledge, health, friendship, and creative achievement – is merely an indication of typesof ways in which individuals at large flourish. However, the flourishing of any individual human being will be the realization by that individual – throughherchoices andefforts – of her particular potential- ities for knowledge, health, friendship, creative achievement, and so on, in the actual particular psychological and material circumstances of her life. This individual’s flourishing is this concrete, self-realizing self-actualization. “[I]ndividuals should not be regarded as metaphysical pincushions in which these generic goods are ‘stuck.’ … It is only through an individual’s practical choices that these generic goods become determinate, real, and valuable” (2005: 81). Both flourishing and the value of flourishing are radically individuated. The realization of her core human potentialities in the psycho- logical and material circumstances of her life is the valuable end for that individual. It is the end that she has reason to achieve. The individuation of human flourishing rather than mere differences in subjective tastes or commitments explains – to echo Rawls – “the plurality of distinct persons” on which “the correct regulative principle” for human society depends (1971: 29).

The fifth key feature of R&DU’s account of human flour- ishing is the contention that self-direction is an essential aspect of each basic component of an individual’s well-being. A state of friendship or creative achievement or knowledge must arise from one’s choices, attention, or efforts. Constituents of personal well-being cannot be delivered to one. In their later ThePerfectionistTurn, R&DU say, “Ontologically considered, human flourishing is an activity, an actuality, and an end that is realized (or a function that is performed) through the self-directed exercise of an individual’s rational capacity”22 (2016: 45).

Let us turn then to R&DU’s account of how a natural right to liberty can be derived – or extracted – from their ethics of human flourishing. R&DU maintain that, while any fundamental political principle must take due account of the separate value of each individual’s flourishing, that principle needs to have a very different character from the norms that define and guide individual human flourishing. Most clearly, that principle cannot enshrine the flourishing or any aspect of the flourishing of any specific individual or group as an end for all individuals or associations. Such a principle must not “… structurally prejudice the political/legal order of society more toward some forms of human flourishing than others” (2005: 83–4). Rather, it must focus on some aspect of human action that “is central to any and every form of human flourishing.” And it must reconcile “[t]he propriety of individualism and the need for sociality,” i.e., our “shared need to act in a peaceful and orderly social/political context” (2005: 91). To emphasize the difference between the principles that form such a normative framework and the norms that guide individuals toward self-realization, R&DU refer to the former as “meta-normative” principles. Such principles are not moral norms “… in the sense of guiding us toward the achievement of moral excellence or human flourishing” (2005: 91).

In thinking about what the key, neutral, meta-normative principle could be, R&DU take their cue from their claim that self-directedness is – in terminology that I am supplying – the form, but not the substance, of personal flourishing. Thus, a rule that protects each individual’s self-direction hones in on a feature present in all human flourishing, takes like cognizance of the propriety of each individual’s pursuit of personal well-being, and is responsive to the need for a neutral framework supportive of peace and beneficial inter- action. R&DU then move rather quickly from a rejection of “encroachment upon self-direction” to an affirmation of a right to liberty as the most basic natural right and then on to construing liberty as a matter of rightful possession of compossible spheres of action.

[S]ince the initiation of physical force is the single most  threatening encroachment upon self-direction, as well as the  most basic, the aim of the individual right to liberty is to ban  legally such activity in all its forms. The individual right to  liberty allows each person a sphere of freedom – a “moral  space” or “moral territory” – whereby self-directed activities  can be exercised without being invaded by others. This  translates socially into a principle of compossible and equal  freedom for all.

(2005: 89–90)

It seems that the right to liberty is not a right against all impingements on self-direction;23 the former provides moral protection only against initiated physical impingements. If so, we need an explanation for why our fundamental natural right does not protect us against all encroachments on self- direction. R&DU do say that the initiation of force – and, presumably, also the threat of force – are the “most threat- ening” and “most basic” encroachments on liberty. Still, it is not clear how this points to a right against infringements on liberty rather than a broader right against infringements on self-direction. However, R&DU are clear that the funda- mental meta-normative right to liberty is to be understood as a side constraint on permissible action rather than as a goal for action. Violations of liberty are to be eschewed rather than minimized.24 Through their distinction between ordinary ethical norms and meta-normative side constraints, R&DU retain the fully teleological character of their ethical doctrine while, in effect, introducing political principles that are deontic in character.

R&DU’s emphasis on people’s natural right to liberty of action has important implications for their view about property rights and the natural right to property.

Self-directedness pertains to actions in the world, actions  employing or involving material things at some place and  some time. For such actions by individuals to be self-directed,  they need to have the use and control of what they have  created and produced protected from being used without their  consent. … A human being needs to have property rights to  things that are the result of his or her own judgments and  productive efforts. A person’s choices and judgments cannot  be said to have been respected if the material expression of  those judgments is divested from that individual.

(2005: 98)

This is not an argument directly on behalf of any specific property rights for particular individuals. Rather, it is an argument for including within the “meta-normative” structure rules that specify how individuals can in non-conflictual ways make extra-personal objects their own and, thereby, alter or enhance their prospects for protected self-directed action.25

A system of rules that is neutrally and duly responsive to the importance of human self-direction will include rules concerning initial acquisitions, transfers, and the recovery of illicitly acquired resources. That system of rules will have to have certain features in order to fulfill its function; e.g., the rights that arise through following the rules must be compos- sible.26 Still, R&DU deny that philosophical reasoning can identify some best set of rules. Their view is that there is a considerable range of eligible sets of rules any one of which would satisfy the telos of property rights (2005: 103). Presumably, any particular array of holdings that arises through the chosen actions of individuals that accord with an established and acceptable set of the rules of acquisition will be just. Thus R&DU endorse Nozickian historical entitlement doctrine – albeit they agree with Hayek and Lomasky that the specific details of any actual acceptable set of entitlement rules will depend heavily on historical contin- gency and convention. In contrast to Nozick, R&DU reject any Lockean proviso on the grounds that no acquisition in accordance with these entitlement rules can deprive another party of any resource that the other has already acquired in accordance with those rules (2005: 101). A defender of a Nozick-like proviso will reply that C’s decisions about her disposition of what she has justly acquired might so straiten D’s opportunities to bring his self-owned powers to bear on the world that D would have a just complaint against C even if C does not deprive D of any of his just holdings.27

R&DU do not appeal to the notion of self-ownership. However, in an interesting discussion of others’ invocation of this notion, they investigate whether advocates of the contention of self-ownership take that thesis to be morally axiomatic or seek a deeper ground for it. They point to how common it is for the Kantian-sounding proposition that persons are moral ends-in-themselves to be invoked in support of self-ownership. Although they decline themselves to make this philosophical move, they contend that the best explication of persons as moral ends-in-themselves is to be found in their own individualist moral perfectionism.

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