Sunday, June 12, 2005

belated book review -- Narveson's _Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice_

Years ago, Jan Narveson published Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice. I read it hot off the press, having been quite impressed with his earlier book The Libertarian Idea. So, I endeavored to write a review on both books as a system of thought. It was never quite good enough for publication in, say, the JLS. Sorry, Jan.

But it's good enough for a blog! (really interesting footnotes removed)

Resurrecting Respect and Liberty

A Review of The Libertarian Idea by Jan Narveson (Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, 1988; reprinted 2001 with new preface) and Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice by Jan Narveson (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Maryland, 2002)

By Gil Guillory

Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice is a collection of 16 essays, six of which are published for the first time. These essays were selected as an arc of scholarship over the author’s publishing lifetime, 1965 to present, with most of them being composed in the 1990’s. This is a libertarian cookbook of sorts, with chapters on practical matters (“The Drug Laws”, “Have We a Right to Nondiscrimination?”, “Deserving Profits”) and the abstract (“Marxism: Hollow at the Core”, “Utilitarianism and Formalism”, “Moral Realism, Emotivism, and Natural Law”) arranged in roughly chronological order of authorship. It is a good resource for any teacher or professor who wishes to assign a supplementary reading, because each essay stands on its own and makes its case without undue appeal to external literature.

Respecting makes a good companion to Narveson’s other volume reviewed here, The Libertarian Idea. First published in 1988, Idea attempts to defend libertarianism from the ground up. I cannot possibly do justice to all of the important topics that Narveson raises in both books (over 650 pages of text), so I have contented myself with a review of some of the persistent themes and recurring foundational arguments running through both of these books.

Against Intuitionism

Narveson makes it clear that he wants no part of intuitionism. The problem, as he puts it in “On Recent Arguments for Egalitarianism”, has to do with rationally defending morals:

…we are talking about arguments for equality, as distinct from sheer assertions of it. Appeals to “intuition” – that the commitment to equality is “moral bedrock,” as I have heard it said – must, on the face of it, count in the latter category…my “moral bedrock” might be something quite incompatible with the proponent’s: say, that equality is a snare and a delusion. Strange bedfellows! So where would we go from there? If it’s anywhere, it’s going to have to be either back to arguments, or to non-rational or irrational activity, such as politics…

But, doesn’t moral argumentation rest in the end, as Hume had it, on an ought, on some bedrock moral consideration? “Some of us deny it,” answers Narveson,

On the right view of the foundations of morality, there are no moral bedrocks. Everything is arguable, and arguable by reference to considerations that have to be meaningful to those concerned, antecedently to the moral theory put forward – namely, their various values and preferences, whatever they may be, plus a variety of empirically manageable factual claims.

It is the grounding of morality in fact that makes moral values fundamentally different than mere preferences. But what are these facts?

The Hobbesian Liberal

One of Narveson’s favorite facts is Hobbes’s disturbing (but true) claim that almost every person, no matter how weak, has enough strength to kill the strongest among us, and also the power to make others’ lives quite miserable. He goes on to show that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is “the paradigmatic situation to which morals addresses itself”. This is not a controversial claim among libertarians, but a deficiency of Idea is that it does not argue for this claim with enough vigor. Narveson admits as much in the new preface.

With the relevant facts (including valuing one’s life, and one’s life “projects”) distilled into the Prisoner’s Dilemma, he shows that rational actors will choose to cooperate instead of defect, and encourage others to cooperate. This is the “contractarian case” for morals. Since the very term “contractarian” is a bit confusing to some, a clarification is needed:

The general idea of [contractarianism] is that the principles of morality are (or should be) those principles for directing everyone’s conduct which it is reasonable for everyone to accept. They are the rules that everyone has good reason for wanting everyone to act on, and thus to internalize in himself or herself, and thus to reinforce in the case of everyone.

… Contractarianism can be made to seem arbitrary and silly: consider, for instance, the suggestion that long, long ago our remote ancestors made this deal, see, and from that day to this everyone has had to go along with it! …

The problem is that morality is obviously not the result of a literal contract: and, indeed, it cannot be… Clearly, the sense in which morality is founded upon or due to or represents an “agreement” is going to have to be less straightforward than that.

Narveson explains further:

[Contractarian morals are] the output of a course of deliberation…[chosen to have] the best chance of realizing values actually held by the agent. Those values, of course, need not be and in the first instance cannot be “moral” values. Morality is an output, and what makes it rational is the same as what makes any action or decision rational: it best fills the bill specified by one’s general set of values, whatever they are.

This subjectivism of values is important to Narveson, and he regards it as a defining element of the liberal tradition:

…the liberal must justify principles, policies, and institutions, to any person affected by them, by showing that person they are for his or her good as seen by that person… Each person is regarded as being the ultimate authority on what is good for himself.

Here we see a convergence of many libertarian views. Narveson has written that he was a utilitarian that changed his views by recognizing a few facts that counter classical utilitarianism: utility is not measurable, it is not interpersonally comparable, there is no reason why A would regard B’s utility equal to his or her own, and few people hold as a goal the maximal sum of utility (cardinal or not) for all. Most of these caveats were noted by the libertarian Ludwig von Mises, even though he was a self-proclaimed utilitarian. Henry Hazlitt, an associate of Mises’s, defended this special brand of utilitarianism. But these problems for utilitarianism as a theory of justice persist, rendering it an intellectual dead end in the minds of many.

Just where does Narveson fit, then? A brief taxonomy will answer the question. Prior to the 20th century there were two major libertarian-leaning theories of rights. First was the venerable natural-rights tradition, which cast as normative the natural tendencies of human life. Second was the radical Lockean theory, which proclaimed self-ownership as the moral bedrock and explicated a labor-mixing theory of property acquisition.

Libertarian rights theorists (especially in the latter half) of the 20th century have grappled with the foundational question of how an objective code of justice could exist given the seemingly contradictory fact of subjective preferences and then proceeded to discover such an objective code through the application of reason. This 20th century approach has rightly been called the Rationalist school of rights theory and regards objective justice to be a spontaneous order -- an insight that the pre-20th century theories seem to lack. It is to this Rationalist school that Narveson belongs. The Rationalist libertarian rights theorist constructs a system of non-contingent absolute rights on objective, but contingent, facts. Even though the program appears almost impossible, a number of these approaches have come to the fore.

The Objectivist approach grounds rights in the choice to live. Other approaches appeal to the logical character of the mind, showing that only a system of libertarian rights is self-consistent; and, alternatively, that disobeying libertarian rights implies no argumentative defense against punishment or perhaps even against other depredations. And Narveson’s contractarianism grounds rights in the choice of social cooperation.

Each of these rationalist theorists have important, complementary points. It must be appreciated that Narveson's main line of inquiry is why an actor should be moral, and only secondarily, what that morality is. Narveson has abstracted from Mises. Mises, unlike any other economist, saw the importance and pervasive applicability of Ricardo's Theory of Comparative Advantage, which he broadened to call the Ricardian Law of Association. Narveson focuses on the Prisoner's Dilemma, which is a game-theoretic abstraction of the Ricardian Law of Association and other cooperation-dependent social phenomena.

A brief account of Narveson’s theory is difficult to summarize. Partly due to Narveson’s meandering and non-committal academic style, and partly due to the fact that his chief argument seems to change from essay to essay. But, the core of the contractarian case seems to be the answer to why people choose (and should choose) to cooperate.

[the contractarian’s answer to the game theorist’s claim regarding the one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma] has seemed to many to smack of moralism. And it is undoubtedly more complicated than the game theorist’s response. Instead of adopting a simple, unconditional “nasty” strategy, the rational individual…sees the need in such situations to operate on a more complex strategy. Now, the complexity of this strategy is seen to be especially deep when we ask how we could know that the other person has the similar disposition—and above all when we reflect that that disposition is a disposition to cooperate if I am disposed to cooperate, so that part of my solving my problem about him is that he has to have solved the same problem about me.

The importance of the disposition of other actors has resonance with other modern theorists. Narveson’s contribution could be admirably aided by Hoppe’s insights to explain, for instance, why we should be consistent in our choosing to cooperate. Narveson’s theory maps well over the Objectivist argument. It also seems to have some similarity to Roderick Long’s “Kantianized Aristotleanism”, which grounds rights in the “logically-constructed”, as opposed to the biologically-given, nature or good. Narveson’s contractarianism has done well, in this author’s estimation, in being able to explain important questions such as why an individual often regards the norms of justice to be more important than (to the point even of transcendence over) his subjective preferences. And this is exactly how morals should function: as constraints on the individual actor.

The Contrite Anarchist

Idea received a cool reception in some libertarian circles its first time out of the chute due to Narveson’s discussion of the Ontario Hospital Insurance Program (OHIP), which ends with very unlibertarian conclusions. Perhaps Narveson’s libertarian credentials were questioned. And, if contractarianism can uphold the justice of a program of socialized medicine, the libertarian might not be interested in it. One could conceivably file such a book, along with other supposedly libertarian works, in the classical liberal category instead. Two points must be made on his behalf.

First, Narveson launches his discussion of OHIP in the chapter which attempts to rebut the “insurance” argument for government. He largely dismisses this argument, but then goes on to cite a hypothetical case under the heading "Overwhelming Majorities and Administrative Overhead". He argues that if health insurance is something virtually everyone wants, and if the costs of government-supplied health insurance is lower than free-market insurance, and if the few who do not want it can opt out, then what does the libertarian really have to say against this form of public insurance? Well, to answer Narveson, the libertarian has nothing whatsoever to say against voluntary insurance. The libertarian does wonder how such low costs are the province only of government.

Second, Narveson has obviously given this whole matter a second thought:

…there is one matter on which I have been decidedly contrite ever since the initial printing [of The Libertarian Idea]: my ringing defense of the possible acceptability of Canada's socialized medical system…[it is] quite clear by now that socialized medicine remains, in a word, inexcusable…

But if Narveson’s libertarian credentials were ever questioned, all doubts are certainly erased by his essay “The Anarchist's Case”, which, though pessimistic on the prospects for the stateless order, has some strong conclusions (for an academic philosopher):

Clearly, the libertarian view entails the market anarchist’s…Government may, in short, rest essentially on what amounts to fraud…Political power is inherently likely--“certain” is close enough to the truth--to cause more evil than good, and the good that it occasionally does can be better brought about [by voluntary means] rather than to bring about the side payments of politics…

Respect and Liberty as Libertarian

A refreshing element of Narveson’s work is his rehabilitation of the term “respect” for the libertarian tradition. Long the province of the egalitarian left, Narveson shows that respecting persons in theory and practice is what liberal individualism is all about:

The libertarian view may, I believe, be defended broadly as follows. These other people, being people as well as he, assess their actions in terms of their various values. The accepting and pursuing of one’s assorted values being the stuff of our lives, we cannot but be interested in not having them thwarted, trampled on, and so forth, by others. But also we must reserve the right, as it were, to values-changes without notice. These two, I think, are the sources of our interest, as individuals, in a right to liberty, that is, in not being prevented by others from doing the things we are bent on doing. We are all the same in this respect. And this does not presuppose any fundamental respect for others, any sharing of their values, or even any prior inhibitions about treating them in whatever way suits us in terms of our own values. It doesn’t presuppose it--but, argues the Libertarian [sic], to adopt an attitude of respect for the liberty of others in exchange for their respect for one’s own is one’s best bet among moral theories.

Narveson also gives much weight to the “General Principle of Liberty” and claims that libertarianism is “the doctrine that the only relevant consideration in political matters is individual liberty”. He regards property as derivative of the principle of liberty, but also equivalent to the liberty principle. And thus, libertarianism is all about liberty. This may seem to be a small matter, and perhaps it is, in the cold light of reason. Nonetheless, there is a rhetorical strength in having evidencing reasons that defend the notion that to embrace liberty is to embrace property; for, though there are admitted opponents of property, I have never heard of an opponent of liberty. And so, the persuasion of others, beginning always with common ground, is almost always easiest to achieve starting from liberty and proceeding to the property-rights implications.

An Anti-Intuitionist Critique: Children and Rights

Narveson's critique of intuitionism is sound. He brings it up so often in his works that it is constantly on the reader’s mind. And so, it is only appropriate to explore the possible sins of the preacher. Narveson takes as his starting point the “practical agent” (more about this below) and concludes by embracing both the homesteading principle and the principle of self-ownership.

But contractarianism seems to address the question of cooperation in the abstract, between actors with subjective and changeable (and therefore potentially conflicting) values and in the presence of scarcity of resources. The answer that contractarianism suggests is for men to cooperate under the homesteading rule. What it does not seem to address is the question of self-ownership. Considered by many to be the foundational libertarian political axiom, self-ownership seems not to be comprehended by Narveson’s account of morals.

It must be clearly understood by the reader that what is at issue here is not specific claims to self-ownership by adults (which is not disputed), but the claim that every person upon conception is a self-owner. Such an absolute claim would be inconsistent with the reality of child-rearing, in which the liberty of the child is restricted by the parent. Rothbard attempted to explain the apparent inconsistency with guardianship rights, but this answer is muddled. Sarah Lawrence has taken the opposite tack, founding a movement, Taking Children Seriously, dedicated to absolute liberty for children. This is also, I think, the wrong approach.

In his chapters on the rights of children, Narveson gives great weight to the guardianship claims of parents (and rightly so):

The question then becomes this: when and why should the sentiments of other people regarding a given child be able to override the sentiments of the child’s own parents? A plausible answer, prima facie, is never.

From the standpoint of received modern opinion, he does not venture far from this prima facie conclusion. He goes on to conclude that abortion is not unjust and that infanticide (the “let-die” form, not the “kill” form) is within the realm of justice, given certain circumstances. These conclusions echo Rothbard’s (in his The Ethics of Liberty), but given absolute self-ownership at conception, it has been successfully argued that not all forms of abortion could be just. Narveson argues that it is unjust to kill one’s infant, but it is just to kill one’s unborn. This distinction may be plausible, but it relies on intuition.

By the logic of contractarianism, the claim of a child to his liberty (self-ownership or body-ownership) is not stronger than the claim of the biological parents of that child at any time. As I understand the contractarian case, the child is wholly owned by the parents. Surely, the child’s will is not and cannot be owned. But the child’s body can be. Perhaps I have overly-abstracted the contractarian case. Narveson has warned of such thoughts:

Of course we want to know what it is for a human to be free; but humans are complicated entities, and there are many different features of them that might figure in our account of liberty. Some will want to say it is the “whole person”, others the strictly rational aspect of the person, others the “will”, perhaps in some highly rarefied conception of it [boldface added], and so on…

He goes on to explain that the proper subject of human liberty is “the practical agent”, presumably an adult. But, in doing so, the problem remains. Why and how would a child come to have rights? If the starting point is the practical agent, and our contractarian conclusions result in the finders-keepers rule, whence self-ownership? It seems that Narveson conjures self-ownership from the air, when he writes: “And in the case of children, there is the complication that ere long they have minds of their own, and by virtue of that will come to have the sort of independent rights that persons have.”

Certainly, he does not mean that anything with a will (animals?) automatically must be afforded rights. So, we have a puzzle: self-ownership, long a fixture of libertarian rights theory, is either (a) defendable under contractarianism (doubtful), (b) defendable under a separate line of moral inquiry (this reviewer has not been persuaded), or (c) not defendable under any line of moral inquiry. It seems that the notion that virtually every adult is a self-owner is fully consistent with the homesteading rule, but the notion of self-ownership for children is in conflict with the homesteading rule. Self-ownership, like intellectual property, is a second homesteading rule. To what extent it is defendable is left to the reader.

If axiomatic self-ownership is not valid, a radical contractarian approach suggests itself. Using only the notion of homesteading, one must conclude that parents own their children outright. The scholar may then explore the natural course of growing up, suggesting that parents gradually grant their children more and more freedom. Such a research program would examine in what regard community and familial bonds would persuade parents to adopt liberal attitudes toward their children, thereby checking the egregious excesses of despotic ownership. Even if the homesteading-only approach is ultimately a dead end, the work would certainly be helpful in understanding the social forces that keep depredations at bay; and, will most likely add to the libertarian literature on civil society.

It seems that the contractarian must pursue this program, and eschew self-ownership as hopelessly intuitionist. Rationalist rights theories can only be strengthened by further exploration of this persistent problem of the rights of children.


Narveson makes a compelling case for contractarianism, which complements and enriches other libertarian accounts of moral theory. If you don't read the book, I hope this blog entry has served to give an outline version of Narveson's thought for the reader.

If you are a fan of Narveson's work, as am I, you might consider sending him an email to tell him that we are awaiting his next book, with working title Hobbesian Ethics.

Here's a shout-out of RESPEK to my homeboy!

1 comment:

miltie said...

"The general idea of [contractarianism] is that the principles of morality are (or should be) those principles for directing everyone’s conduct which it is reasonable for everyone to accept. They are the rules that everyone has good reason for wanting everyone to act on, and thus to internalize in himself or herself, and thus to reinforce in the case of everyone."

But why do those morals necessarily lead to a libertarian form of government? It is at that point that Narveson lost me.