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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Philosophers' Playground: Sins of the Right: The Moral Poverty of Libertarianism

Conservative talk about ethics tends to fall into one of two camps: Divine Command Theory which asserts God's Will as the source of moral rightness and wrongness and Libertariansim which sets maximizing personal freedom as the single goal of an ethical system. Divine Command Theory was discussed here not long ago in the post 'Is Domenech a hypocrite for being a plagiarist and a fundamentalist ? No, but...' Here we will look at Libertarianism.

Libertarianism begins from the notion of rights which may possibly be the most influential moral notion in history. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, human rights; all have been the rallying points from which to try to overturn injustice. Exclusion from full humanity and citizenship is the hallmark of an unjust social structure and the most powerful moral weapon in dismantling of barriers put up by the haves to keep the have-nots out has been the notion of rights.One of the reason this tool has been so effective in correcting injustices done to the have-nots is that the notion of rights is also crucial to the haves.

The place where the concept of rights begins is with property rights, with the erection of social protection structures for the stuff of the rich and the ability to enforce contracts so that the rich have a stable business environment. What property rights do is guarantee that nobody can mess with my stuff and that I’ll get paid if I sell it. The powerful are almost always also the rich and in order to keep what they have in terms of both wealth and power, they rely on the inviolability of a structure based on rights.It was then a very small step to extend the notion of rights from keeping my things safe to keeping my body safe, and then we were off and running declaring moral rights to protect our privacy, access to healthcare, and countless other needs. More and more got packed in until we started seeing rights-based language applied to driving an SUV, regardless of how it impacts the environment or other cars in collisions.

But the problem is that we now throw around the term “rights” without having any real sense of what it means. To fix this, we need to keep legal and moral notions distinct because we both use rights-talk in both cases. If a buddy confided in me that he got herpes from his roommate’s girlfriend and I promised to keep it secret, and then I immediately IM it to a mutual friend, I cannot cite the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in my defense. Breaking confidence while gossiping is not a federal crime, but it does make you a slime bag. Your legal right to free speech means that you cannot be arrested for saying most things, it doesn’t mean that there are no moral responsibilities to watch what you say. Just as in the case of cultural relativism, we had to be careful not to confuse legal with moral, we need to keep legal rights – which again are decided by the whims of a legislative body – distinct in our minds from moral rights.The key to rights-based ethics; in general rights give rise to purely negative duties. Rights don't tell me what I have to do for you, they say what you can’t do to me. For all of the historical heavy-lifting they have done over the last couple of centuries, the moral concept of a right is an extremely weak notion. You can act in a way that doesn’t violate anyone’s rights and still be a complete prick.
read the rest......
Moral Poverty


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