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Re: The Trouble with Feser (on Libertarianism)

From a 2004 LRC post:

Re: The Trouble with Feser (on Libertarianism)

Mr. Feser replied to my earlier blogpost [see also here]. His reply, reprinted below (with permission), and my response to it, follows:

Dear Mr. Kinsella,

A friend directed me to your reply to my article. Unfortunately, like others who’ve criticized it, you don’t seem to have read it very carefully. Some comments on your comments:

1. I didn’t “attack” libertarianism. Rather, I attacked the claims that (a) libertarianism is neutral between comprehensive doctrines, and (b) that there is a common core to all the main theories usually classified as “libertarian.” All of this leaves open the possibility that some doctrine usually classified as “libertarian” is true; indeed, I am personally inclined to accept some version of Aristotelian-natural law based libertarianism, combined with insights drawn from Hayek (though these days I’d probably prefer the label “classical liberal” or, with Hayek, “Burkean Whig,” to the label “libertarian,” which, partly for the reasons I discuss in the article, is often extremely misleading). Moreover, someone familiar with my other writings on libertarianism — as I know you are, since you once sent me a nice note about one of my articles — would realize that “attacking libertarianism” wasn’t quite what I intended.

2. Yes, I realize that no libertarian claims that his view is neutral between _every single_ worldview, however bizarre, any more than Rawls does. (Obviously, ax-murdering is, as you say, out.) What I said was that libertarians generally take their view to be neutral between the main worldviews represented in contemporary pluralistic societies: this sort of thing is usually what is meant by the claim that a view like Rawlsian liberalism or libertarianism is “neutral,” and it is this claim that was my target. (For an example of this sort of libertarian claim to “neutrality,” think of Nozick’s concept of the minimal state as a “meta-utopia” in which different visions of how society should be ordered can be tried out.)

3. It is simply no good to say that “non-aggression” etc. is the core to all versions of libertarianism, because the real question is what counts as “aggression” — after all, NO ONE, libertarian or otherwise, claims to be in favor of aggression, so what is the point of appealing to “non-aggression” as if it answered all questions? In fact it doesn’t answer anything, because what counts as aggression can only be determined once we’ve first determined what rights we have and why we have them. Does abortion count as aggression? Does refusing to legalize same-sex marriage count as aggression? Does outlawing stem-cell research count as aggression? Different versions of libertarianism will give very different answers to these questions, because they have very different conceptions of rights.

The point of my article was to suggest that the differences between these versions of libertarianism are often far more important and interesting than the similarities. Libertarians of a Lockean, Aristotelian, or Hayekian bent are, in my view, miles away from libertarians of the contractarian or utilitarian type. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that the latter are closer to modern liberals and the former closer to modern conservatives than the two camps of libertarians are to each other. That many libertarians don’t see this is, I think, a consequence of their not paying sufficient attention to the very different implications that the foundations one gives libertarianism might have for what _counts_ as “libertarianism.” (If you want to see just how radically different the Aristotelian-Hayekian sort of libertarianism is going to be from other varieties, once its implications are consistently drawn out, you might find of interest my article “Self-Ownership, Abortion, and the Rights of Children,” forthcoming in the Journal of Libertarian Studies.)

Best,

Ed Feser

My reply is as folllows. First, let me make it clear that I meant no disrespect to the Fesenator, nor that I uncharitably construed his words. But after all, his article was entitled “The Trouble with Libertarianism,” hardly something a diehard, hardcore, irascible libertarian like me can be expected to resist responding to (see, e.g., my responses to previous attacks on libertarianism by Jonah Goldberg and Francis Fukuyama). I do not think it matters much whether Feser’s argument is characterized as an “attack” on “libertarianism” per se or not. The main question for me is: has Feser set forth any arguments that show that the main libertarian case is wrong? If he does not, his title is inapropos and frankly, I am (qua libertarian) completely uninterested. If he does not assert or maintain that libertarianism is flawed or incorrect, then I withdraw my response. If, on the other hand, he does for whatever reason claim that libertarianism is flawed, then I feel compelled to take issue with this. I disagree with this. Now the question in this case is, what is his argument? As I said in my previous post, his main argument seems to be that libertarianism somehow rests upon the idea that it is “neutral between comprehensive doctrines” and also “that there is a common core to all the main theories usually classified as ‘libertarian.'” I’ll be honest that this country boy’s eyes glaze over when philosopher and humanities types use terms like “neutral between comprehensive doctrines” or even “common core.” In fact this makes my trigger finger itch. Just kidding. I went right to what I saw as the heart of the matter, when I read this, so I’m sorry Feser thinks I didn’t “seem to have read it very carefully.” The bottom line to me is: does Feser mount any kind of case against the primary libertarian belief? This belief is, as I noted, that the unconsented-to use of another’s body or property–what is commonly referred to as aggression–is unjustiifed. It has nothing to do with being “neutral between comprehensive doctrines”. Nor does its justification. So to be honest, I find Feser’s attack to be completely beside the point. That is why I did not delve into the details (that, and I am short on time). I really don’t mind if Feser wants to prove libertarianism is not “neutral between comprehensive doctrines”, any more than I mind if he wants to prove libertarianism “has no position on the length of the universe.” This is because the principled opposition to aggression does not rely in the slightest upon being “neutral between comprehensive doctrines”. In fact, as I said before, this view is NOT “neutral.” It is anti-aggression, and pro-victim. Let’s make it even clearer. To disprove libertarianism’s central contention–that aggression is unjustified–one must actually try to (a) show that aggression is actually justified (in some cases); or (b) show that what we view as aggression (e.g., murder and other private crime; or activities of the state such as taxation, regulation, conscription) is not actually aggression. I honestly see no other logical alternative. Now I ask you: Does Feser’s demonstration (if it is that) that libertarianism is not “neutral between comprehensive doctrines” show either thing? Of course it does not. Feser may be interested in this and indeed it may be an interesting thing to show, but I fail to see how it shows that aggression is justified; or that the state does not necessarily employ aggression. Accordingly, I conclude that our view that aggression is unjustified and the state is inherently aggressive (and therefore unjustified) is simply not challenged by Feser’s opinion or observation that libertarianism isn’t “neutral between comprehensive doctrines”! Of course, I am focusing with a monomania on aggression. But then, I am a libertarian. Shall I apologize for that? To whom? The savages? In the words of The Mighty Thor, I say thee … NAY!

[Posted at 07/28/04 10:22 PM by Stephan Kinsella on LewRockwell.com ]

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  • Tony M June 24, 2009, 11:19 am

    Dear Dr. Kinsella,

    I have enjoyed your work for a couple of years, though I disagree with some significant portion of your conclusions. I have come across Dr. Feser in other contexts and enjoyed his writing, though I have bones to pick with some of his political / economic views. I would like to add a comment to your thoughts, though the comment is not precisely on point with whether Dr. Feser is or is not attacking libertarianism appropriately. It has to do with agression.

    We all agree with the basic stance, strongly held by libertarians, that we have an intrinsic right to resist attack by others. (This would appear to be the only consistent conclusion from holding that we have a right to our own bodies and selves.) The problem comes in with identifying “attack”. Some problematic examples are fairly easy to cook up: If I see 4 men yelling at an old woman, threatening her, shoving her, opening taking her purse and taking the money, I am pretty sure that they are using aggression, right? But wait, what if she had stolen the money 10 minutes before I arrived on the scene, and they were simply recovering their own money? Is it aggression then? Well, the simplistic answer is that since she was actually holding the money, any force used to change that situation must have been aggression. But of course, any non-state libertarian would consider this a problematic explanation, since it would leave successful theft irremediable. And a pro-state person would typically suggest that recovering the money is a job for the state, so the 4 men were acting outside their proper sphere in using agression. The bottom line is that “defense” in sthe strictest sense can only be defense at the exact moment of the attack, and any later attempt to remedy the effects of the attack is itself aggression. So, anarcho-libertarians are stuck between supporting certain types of aggression, or insisting that injustices remain without remedy.

    But more troubling examples exist. Suppose I am a Daniel Boone, and travel 200 miles into the wilderness to establish a homestead. I carve the land, house, etc out of true frontier, with nobody within 20 miles of me. I put my house within 50 feet of a creek. My outhouse is out back (within 40 feet of the creek). Now, back then, nobody knew the connection between waste sanitation and cholera. If I have 10,000 neighbors doing exactly what I am doing, we are going to end up fouling the creek and causing disease. But virtually by definition, doing as one person exactly what would (supposing many others were to engage in the act) help to cause a community disaster is certainly not living as a libertarian – in this case I am taking away clean water from others, water that is not mine. Now, we move forward 30 years and some enterprising scientist does the initial research which suggests that my latrine methods are a form of stealing other people’s goods. But I either (a) don’t understand the science, or (b) insist that the science is at best tentative and there are other explanations, and go on with my habits. My point is that when the “taking” is not self-evident, there perforce must be an authoritative body that can state “this act violates others’ rights to property”, i.e. a state, or else there will never, ever be an aggreement as to whether a given act really is an act of aggression. And once we say an ‘authoritative body’, we mean a body that has the power and right to enforce its decisions on the matter. Which gives the appearance of aggression, even though the aggression is used only to enforce putting a stop to my acts of aggression against the community of other property holders. Once you accept a state as necessary to identify and protect rights, you accept that acts by the state to enforce such rights will have the appearance of aggression. Are you suggesting that such a state can successfully operate without taxes? And without at least the possibility of conscription (at least for a posse, if not for war)?

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