Showing posts with label Ethics and moral instincts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ethics and moral instincts. Show all posts

Thursday, February 15, 2024

What makes a narrative good?

 


I asked myself the question posed above as I was reading Michèle Lamont’s book, Seeing Others, How to Redefine Worth in a Divided World. The passage quoted below seems central to Michèle Lamont’s book:

“The hegemony of the American dream manifests in the emphasis Americans put on neoliberal virtues of material success, self-reliance, individualism, entrepreneurialism, and competitiveness. These criteria of worth have gained more and more influence as “models of ideal selves,” and encourage many to internalize blame for the increasing precarity of their lives. This model can also lead people to seek out a scapegoat group to blame.” (p 31)

Those sentences seem to suggest that neoliberalism encourages people to either internalize blame for misfortune or to seek scapegoat groups to blame.

Internalizing blame

The author doesn’t explain why she believes neoliberalism can cause people to “internalize blame for the increasing precarity of their lives”, but she lists several references in the notes section which may support her claims. The one which seems likely to be most relevant is an article by Glen Adams, Sara Estrada-Villalta, Daniel Sullivan, and Hazel Rose Markus entitled ‘The Psychology of Neoliberalism and the Neoliberalism of Psychology’, Journal of Social Issues 75 (1), 2019.

Adams et al use the term ‘neoliberalism’ to refer to an economic and political movement that came to prominence in the late 1970s, advocating “deregulation of markets and free movement of capital with an emphasis on fluidity and globalization”. Such usage of ‘neoliberalism’ to refer to advocacy of free markets is now common, even though the term was once generally understood to refer to advocacy of left-leaning policies, e.g. a ‘social market economy’, rather than free markets. Like most advocates of free markets, I would prefer to be referred to as a classical liberal or libertarian, but I can usually assume that I am among good company when I am labelled as a neoliberal.

The authors argue that neoliberalism encourages “an entrepreneurial approach to self as an ongoing development project, an imperative for individual growth and personal fulfillment, and an emphasis on affect regulation”. I don’t object to that characterisation. It describes some aspects of the approach to human flourishing in Part III my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

However, the authors suggest that neoliberalism also supports psychological “responsibilization” - an ugly word for an ugly concept. The claim they make is that neoliberals advocate that individuals should not only accept personal responsibility for problems which it may be possible to ameliorate through behaviour change (such as obesity and substance abuse) but also to accept responsibility for misfortune more generally.

Neoliberals argue that free markets tend to reward individual effort, but that doesn’t mean that they believe that economic misfortune is always attributable to lack of individual effort. In fact, one of the characteristics of neoliberalism is recognition that social problems of poverty, unemployment etc. are often attributable to foolish government economic policies that are opposed to economic freedom.

I don’t know any neoliberal who would suggest that individuals should “internalize blame” for any disruption of their lives associated with innovation and competition. Neoliberals are more likely to suggest that people who lose jobs or other remuneration because of the disruptive impact of innovation and competition should view such setbacks as beyond their control. The potential for such setbacks is a price that previous generations have willingly paid to enable to enable their descendants to enjoy the benefits of economic growth. Deirdre McCloskey – a prominent classical liberal – has coined the term, ‘bourgeois deal’, to refer to the willingness of people to accept the potential for their lives to be disrupted by innovation and competition in exchange for ongoing expansion of economic opportunities. (See Bourgeois Equality.)

I doubt that many psychologists would suggest that their clients should “internalize” blame for all the bad things that happen to them. When psychologists suggest that individuals should take responsibility for their lives, I am sure that the vast majority would mean that individuals should focus on taking personal responsibility for problems that are within their locus of control.

Who is responsible for the scapegoat narrative?

It took me some time to work out why Michèle Lamont believes that neoliberalism encourages people to seek out scapegoat groups to blame for misfortune. Her reasoning evidently has more to do with her belief that Donald Trump is a neoliberal than with the beliefs of neoliberals.

On the page following the passage quoted above, Lamont writes: 

“From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, neoliberalism has come to be understood as a precondition for a successful society”.

I believe that free markets help societies to become and remain successful, but it is hard to understand how anyone could perceive Donald Trump to be an advocate of that view. While in office, Trump administered the final blow to the “neoliberal consensus” on international trade that characterised the post-Cold War period, and he currently favors further restrictions on international trade and international movement of labor.  

Lamont’s claim that neoliberalism encourages people to seek out scapegoat groups to blame seems to rest on the behavior of Donald Trump. She observes that in 2015 former president Trump advanced a false narrative in which immigrants from Mexico were rapists and drug dealers. (pp 51-2). During the 2016 campaign Trump appealed to “America’s forgotten workers” by recognizing their plight and “by blaming globalization and immigration for it”. (p 70)

Lamont also suggests that Trump provided “an empowering narrative” for the working class “who are often perceived as “the losers of the system”. (p 165). Early in the book, she notes:

“Instead of depicting ‘everyday Americans’ as ‘deplorables’, as Hillary Clinton was perceived to do in the 2016 presidential campaign, her opponent Donald Trump affirmed their worth in his various electoral speeches, explaining their loss of social status as a result of globalization and immigration.” (p 8)

Lamont’s narrative

The title of Lamont’s book, “seeing others”, refers to “acknowledging people’s existence and positive worth, actively making them visible and valued, reducing their marginalization, and openly integrating them into a group”. (p 6) She suggests that having one’s sense of worth affirmed “is a universal need that is central to our identity as human beings and our quality of life”. (p 7) She urges that we “bridge boundaries with those who are different” via “ordinary universalism”, or “emphasizing similarities over differences”. (p 144)

I don’t object to those sentiments, and I doubt whether many other neoliberals would either. It is certainly appropriate to recognize that ordinary universalism can be “a vital counterweight” to “Nationalist populism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia” which “are on the rise in many countries”. (p 146) As an advocate of ordinary universalism, however, I think it is unfortunate that the author was not sufficiently “inclusive” to recognize that antisemitism also belongs on that list.  

I also object to the idea that “individualist approaches” to improving wellbeing “may harm more than they help, since they pull people’s attention away from more meaningful efforts”. (p 48) The author seems to be suggesting that excessive attention is given to approaches that help individuals to improve their assessments of their own worth. Instead, she urges:

“We need to ask ourselves hard questions about how we decide who matters and what we can do to create a more inclusive society.”

It seems to me that people who are lacking in regard for their own worth are unlikely to make a positive contribution to ensuring that the worth of others is appropriately recognized.

Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of how it is possible to change hearts and minds in order to reduce stigmatization of marginalized groups, and thus build a more inclusive society. That discussion is largely beyond the scope of this essay.

In Chapter 7, however, the author discusses the result of a survey of the attitudes of Gen Z students (aged 18 to 23). She seems a little perplexed that Gen Z tend to “embrace some neoliberal ideals – hard work and success” but is pleased that they “combine personal professional aspirations with the promotion of collective well-being”.

The author claims that apart from “the wealthiest of the wealthy” every other group “finds itself reeling from an onslaught of difficulties, disappointments, and anxieties, grasping for dignity and stability”. (p 47) That is implausible and seems at odds with her message about destigmatization of marginalized groups. However, it fits well with another theme of Lamont’s narrative.   

As already mentioned, Lamont suggests that Trump provided “an empowering narrative” for the working class. She suggests that the Democratic party should counter that with “messages of solidarity and dignity”:

Redirecting working class anger toward the one percent is more likely to sustain fruitful alliances than driving wedges between diverse categories of workers who have so much in common.” (p 159)

Is Lamont’s narrative good?

It seems to me that appropriate criteria to consider whether a narrative is good include whether it encourages ethical behaviour and whether it is factually accurate.

Regarding ethical behaviour, Michèle Lamont seems to be seeking to “mobilize” good narratives when she suggests:

“We engineer our world together by mobilizing narratives that expand recognition of who is worthy.”

Leaving aside engineering, the message she is attempting to convey seems to be that narratives have a role in reinforcing the ethical intuition that we should respect other humans and behave with integrity toward them, irrespective of gender, sexual preference, race, nationality, religion, wealth, social status, political affiliations etc. I am not entirely convinced that she would include ideological opponents among those who are “worthy”, but she does acknowledge that “it is worth trying to understand even people we may strongly disagree with”. (p 159).   

On the question of factual accuracy, Lamont’s narrative, which suggests that the workers have reason to be angry with the wealthy one percent, seems to me to be just as questionable as Donald Trump’s narrative which suggests that the workers have reason to be angry about globalization and immigration. Neither of those narratives promotes an accurate understanding of economic reality.  

Conclusion

In this essay I have examined Michèle Lamont’s narrative that neoliberalism encourages people to either internalize blame for misfortune or to seek scapegoat groups to blame. My conclusion is that her claim that neoliberalism encourages people to internalize blame is baseless. Her claim about seeking to blame scapegoat groups seems to be based on the false belief that Donald Trump is a neoliberal.

Good narratives should encourage ethical behaviour and be factually accurate. One of Lamont’s objectives in this book seems to be to “mobilize” good narratives that reinforce the ethical intuition that we should behave with integrity toward all other humans. However, the factual accuracy of her narrative that workers have reason to be angry with the wealthy one percent is highly questionable. If accepted by governments that approach would encourage unethical redistributions of incomes and further dampen incentives that are essential to the ongoing growth of widespread economic opportunities.


Tuesday, January 23, 2024

What is wrong with Sartre's view of self-creation?

 


I have read a great deal of the fiction written by Jean Paul Sartre, but my knowledge of his philosophical works is second-hand. I read Nausea, The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Iron in the Soul, when I was in my 20’s. Those novels still sit on my bookshelves along side novels by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Ayn Rand.

The only Sartre novel that left a lasting impression on me is Iron in the Soul. I have a vague recollection of the plot of Part One that novel. It ends with Mathieu Delarue, an academic who became a soldier in the French army, taking part in a futile military operation after France had been defeated by Germany during World War II. The purpose of this military operation was apparently to use up ammunition. Part One ends with Delarue declaring that he is free, even though it seems that his life is about to end.

At the time I read the book I would have been impressed that Delarue had found inner freedom by doing something decisive, but I doubt that I contemplated whether he had discovered himself or created himself.

It is only in the last decade or so that I have pondered whether personal development is best described as a discovery process, or a creative process. David L Norton’s book, Personal Destinies: A philosophy of personal individualism (1976) has recently prompted me to think further on the topic. I will begin with a general discussion of Norton’s view of personal destinies before considering his view of Sartre’s position.

Is your destiny in your genes?

While reading the first chapter of Personal Destinies, I balked at Norton’s injunction to "accept your destiny".

I accept the author's argument that self-actualization requires a person to discover the daimon within, and to live in accordance with it. I have no problem with injunctions to "know thyself", "choose yourself", and to "become what you are". However, being told to "accept your destiny" seems more challenging.

What does Norton mean?

Norton suggests that from the moment of birth, it is the destiny of each individual to actualise their potential in a particular way. If they live in accord with their destiny they become like the heroes of a Greek tragedy, showing undeviating consistency of character as they meet their fate.

He is suggesting that individuals are destined to have a unique personal character if they follow their daimon. He is not suggesting that the individual’s fate is pre-determined.

Why did I object?

My first objection was that accepting one's destiny seems opposed to accepting personal responsibility for one's choices. Norton explains that is not so. Individuals are free to choose to adhere to their destiny or to deviate from it.

I think my second objection has more substance. I have seen individuals change their character through their own actions. Genes play an important role in determining our destinies, but they are not the only determinant. Brain plasticity seems to enable people to change their destinies, for good or ill.

I recommend David Eagleman’s book, Livewired: the inside story of the ever-changing brain, to anyone who needs to be persuaded that genes are not destiny. As previously discussed on this blog, Eagleman, a neuroscientist, makes the point that the human brain arrives in the world unfinished: “despite some genetic pre-specification, nature’s approach to growing a brain relies on receiving a vast set of experiences, such as social interaction, conversation, play, exposure to the world, and the rest of the landscape of normal human affairs”.

It may even be possible for adults who follow their daimons to create more "potential" to actualize. If that is correct, it makes sense to think of personal development as involving self-creation as well as self-discovery. In the post already mentioned, I referred to the approach offered by Gena Gorlin, a psychologist, as an example of self-directed personal development. Gorlin has referred to her approach as a call to self-creation.

What is the problem with Sartre’s view?

Sartre argues that humans are “condemned to be free”. Each self constitutes itself as a “fundamental project” which is a product of free choice.

Norton explains that Sartre’s view of self-creation stems from the idea that whatever may be given to consciousness can appear in consciousness only as a meaning, and meanings are the product of consciousness itself. A person is nothing until he or she (or ?) chooses an identity. Human reality owes nothing to “inner nature”. There are no innate capabilities. “Talent is nothing other than acquired ability deriving from activity that is engaged in by choice.”

Norton suggests that autonomous self-awareness first appears in adolescence as a discovery rather than as a creation:

“In adolescence, autonomous self-awareness first occurs in the form of one’s awareness of being misidentified by the other. … Throughout childhood the individual has unquestioningly accepted adult identification of himself, usually that of his parents. Now, however, it is in the parental identification that the adolescent recognizes misidentification …. . Beneath this sense of misidentification and responsible for it is the adolescent’s new-found awareness that only he can speak. The moment is portentous and felt to be such. By its tone of  “from this moment and forever-more,” it signals a future very different from the past, it marks a disruption of the personal continuum. At the same time misidentification by others cannot be corrected because the new found “inner self” of the adolescent as yet has no voice with which to speak to the world, it is but a murmur within, audible to one person alone, and this helplessness projects itself as “fated to be misunderstood.” (p 111)

That passage brings back some memories of adolescence. And, even now, that feeling of being “fated to be misunderstood” sometimes returns to me.

An internet search suggests to me that developmental psychologists commonly believe that autonomous self-awareness first occurs during adolescence between the ages of 12 and 18 years. That stage of life often involves a great deal of experimentation leading to self-discovery.

The attraction of Sartre’s view of self-creation is that it appears to offer unlimited opportunities to individuals choose their identity. In arguing that human freedom is freedom for self-discovery and self-adherence, Norton suggests that Sartre’s advocacy of absolute freedom is actually a capitulation to “the forces of alienation at work in contemporary life”:

“The man who has no authentic feelings, and must on every occasion manufacture his feelings, is no exemplar of freedom but rather the self-alienated product of special conditions of life today.” (p 116).

Sensible self-creation

The main difference between Gena Gorlin’s approach to self-development and that of Sartre is that Gorlin does not claim that it is necessary to choose an identity before becoming a self-aware person. The existence of a person is presupposed in the builder’s mindset that Gorlin advocates:

“A person chooses what she wants to build, and she holds herself accountable for the work of building it.”

Robert Kegan’s concepts of self-authorship and self-transformation also seem to me to be sensible approaches to self-creation. Most adults have socialized minds – they are faithful followers and team players. Those with self-authoring minds are in the next largest group. They are self-directed and can generate an internal belief system.  Only a tiny percentage have self-transforming minds, capable of stepping back from, and reflecting upon the limits of personal ideology. I included some discussion of Rober Kegan’s concepts in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

Conclusions

David L Norton’s book, Personal Destinies, has prompted me to think further on the topic of whether personal development is best described as a discovery process or a creative process. Norton’s view that personal destinies are determined at birth does not leave any room for self-creation. The existence of brain plasticity suggests, however, that it may make sense for psychologists to view personal development as having a creative component.

Norton offers an illuminating account of what is wrong with Sartre’s extreme view that it is necessary to choose an identity before being aware of being a person. Norton seems to me to be correct in suggesting that autonomous self-awareness occurs as a discovery process during adolescence.

Sensible advocates of self-creation do not claim that it is necessary to choose an identity before becoming aware of being an individual person.


Sunday, January 14, 2024

How do democratic institutions survive in Papua New Guinea?


 

In countries with endemic law and order and corruption problems, outbreaks of rioting and looting often lead to military dictatorship, or some similarly authoritarian style of government.

However, I don’t think many people expect the recent outbreak of rioting and looting in Port Moresby and other major cities in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to result in authoritarian government. In the 50 years since it gained independence from Australia, PNG leaders have muddled through several major crises without resort to authoritarianism. Local leaders, including military leaders, have generally displayed little appetite for radical change. They have responded to major crises by seeking to uphold the PNG constitution. Responses to the Sandline crisis of 1997 are a prime example.

The Sandline crisis

In January 1997, the PNG government approved a contract to engage Sandline International – a firm employing mercenary soldiers – to neutralize the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). The aim of the exercise was to reopen the Panguna copper mine which had been shut down in 1989 as a consequence of BRA activities seeking Bougainville’s independence from PNG.

General Jerry Singirok, the commander of the PNG defence force, did not believe that the proposed Sandline operation would succeed, and was concerned that it might result in mass civilian casualties. He also believed that the Sandline contract was unconstitutional. He resolved to expel the mercenaries from PNG before they were able to begin military activities on Bougainville. To achieve that objective, Singirok and some trusted colleagues devised and implemented Operation Rausim Kwik. The operation received overwhelming public support in PNG.


I don’t propose to present my view on whether Jerry Singirok did the right thing. I encourage readers of this blog to make up their own minds after reading Singirok’s recently published book, A Matter of Conscience: Operation Rausim Kwik. I enjoyed reading the book. It was given to me for Christmas by one of my brothers, who lives in PNG. As well as discussing the matters of conscience that Singirok had to consider, it provides an exciting account of the planning and implementation of this secret military operation.

My purpose in the remainder of this essay is to sketch out how the Sandline contract and Rausim Kwik were viewed in Australia, and to offer some additional thoughts about PNG institutions.

Australian views of the Sandline crisis

As I remember, there was intense interest in the Sandline affair in Australia. News stories about mercenaries and mutiny always attract attention but the Sandline affair was of particular interest because of the proximity of PNG to Australia, PNG’s history as an Australian colony, and the large number of Australians who had lived and worked in PNG or had family living there.

As the former colonial power, the Australian government didn’t want to interfere overtly unless it became necessary for action to be taken to protect Australian citizens. The official reaction of the government could be described as hand-wringing.

Prior to the Sandline affair, Australian authorities had been trying to persuade their counterparts in Port Moresby that peace on Bougainville could only be achieved via a negotiated settlement. Support provided under the Defence Cooperation Program included a requirement that the helicopters provided could not be used as “gunships”, and other similar conditions. Sir Julius Chan, the PNG prime minister, claimed that it was Australia’s reluctance to provide adequate support that had led his government “to go to the private sector”.

The Australian government did not send a strong message to the PNG government about its opposition to employment of mercenaries in the region until after Jerry Singirok had taken action to arrest the Sandline executives. At that point the Australian PM, John Howard, sent three senior public servants to PNG to urge Sir Julius to cancel the Sandline agreement and deport the mercenaries. The emissaries threatened that Australia might not continue its aid program if the PNG government continued in the proposed use of mercenaries to put down the rebellion on Bougainville.

In his public address to the nation, Singirok reassured the public that he was not conducting a military coup. Nevertheless, he insisted that the government ministers involved should step aside pending a judicial inquiry into the hiring of Sandline.

I think there was as much concern in Australia about Singirok’s mutinous behaviour as about the PNG government’s employment of mercenaries. The actions of the military commander in preventing implementation of government policy seemed like a step in the direction of military dictatorship. Singirok notes that the Australian High Commissioner handed him a diplomatic note from Canberra stating among other things:

“We strongly believe that it is essential that the PNGDF obey the directives of the PNG government and cease any illegal or unconstitutional activity.”

However, I doubt that the Australian government’s hand-wringing had much influence in ensuring that the Sandline crisis ended peacefully.

PNG institutions

Some prominent PNG citizens helped to end the Sandline crisis by assisting negotiations between Singirok and Sir Julius Chan. Singirok was dismissed as commander of the PNG defence force, but his demands were met. The PM and two other ministers stepped aside while an inquiry was held. Normal constitutional processes were resumed.


Sean Dorney, an Australian journalist with over four decades of experience in reporting on Papua New Guinea, regards the professionalism of its defence force as one of PNG’s strengths. In his book, The Embarrassed Colonialist, published in 2016, he writes about the PNGDF under the heading: “A Developing Country’s Military With No Ambition to Rule”. He quotes General Toropo, who was then commander of the PNGDF, as saying that he cannot see a military coup ever happening in PNG because the PNGDF regards itself as a professional organisation and “has got beyond tribal and regional differences”. Dorney notes that prior to independence, Australia made a conscious effort to recruit soldiers from all around the country so that the defence force would not be dominated by a group from any one province or region.

Dorney has a less favourable view of the police force. He notes that a police department had not even been created until the decade before independence and suggests that inexperienced and untrained staff were major problems at that time. He notes that by international standards the size of the police force relative to population is very low in PNG.

The professionalism of the police force is obviously still a problem. The most recent bout of rioting and looting occurred after police went on strike because of a pay dispute. Hopefully, the increased foreign aid that Australia announced last year to police training etc. will be of some help in improving the professionalism of the PNG police force.

Improved policing is an obvious response to a law-and-order problem, but it may not be necessary to invest vast amounts of public money in crime deterrence in order to make the transition from a high to low crime society. In his book, The Enlightened Economy, Joel Mokyr points out that firm government enforcement of laws could not have played a major role in enabling Britain to achieve a low crime society. In the 18th century, large parts of Britain were virtual “lawless zones” and in others, legal practice often deviated considerably from the letter of the law. Enforcement was largely a private enterprise with the courts at best serving as an enforcer of last resort. There was no professional police force. Daily law enforcement was in the hands of amateurs and part-time parish constables. Justice had to rely to a large extent on volunteers, local informers, vigilante groups and private associations specializing in prosecution of felons. Private law enforcement remained of substantial importance until well into the 19th Century (pages 376-379).

The incentive to engage in crime depends on the alternative economic opportunities available to potential criminals as well as on the expected rewards of crime. The more general issue of what has been holding back the growth of economic opportunities in PNG, discussed previously on this blog, is relevant in this context.

Criminal activity has certainly been having an adverse impact on the growth of economic opportunities, and lack of economic opportunity has no doubt tempted more people to resort to crime. However, that does not necessarily make the problem intractable. One possible solution is for police to give highest priority to deterring the violence and theft that is having a major adverse impact on the economic opportunities of poor people.

The survival of democratic institutions in PNG does not seem to be seriously threatened by current levels of crime and corruption. There is a risk, however, that crime and corruption will reach a stage where criminal gangs directly threaten the survival of democratic institutions.  

Conclusions

Democratic institutions survive in Papua New Guinea because local leaders have generally responded to major crises by seeking to uphold the constitution. That was particularly evident in the Sandline crisis of 1997.

The PNG defence force has been aptly described as a developing country’s military with no ambition to rule. The defence force regards itself as a professional organisation that has “has got beyond tribal and regional differences”.

The professionalism of the PNG police force is more questionable. A more professional police force could help ameliorate PNG’s endemic law and order problems by giving highest priority to deterring the violence and theft that is having a major adverse impact on the economic opportunities of poor people.

The main risk to democratic institutions in PNG seems to me to lie in the potential for crime and corruption to expand to a point where criminal gangs take over the government.


Postscript

1. Noric Dilanchian has provided the following comment:

You've written a good article Winton.
As my only closely relevant background, in my last year in law school (1982) I helped a friend write her Law in Developing Societies course thesis about protests by indigenous people on Bougainville Island before the first major conflict.
Our conclusion then was that massive mining pollution and industry behaviour, among other factors I cannot remember, were conducive for societal collapse. It then happened.
I was also reflecting on your thinking in light of three books I read late in 2023 on the 20th century history of Iran. There a central problem was that the royal rulers always sought exclusive rule-supporting control over the armed forces. That had very bad consequences. As for the police in cities, they performed the connected with elites thug role comparable to and evident in Sydney during and before Premier Robert Askin's administration (1965-1975).

2. Pat Green wrote:

If I could draw comics, I would draw a helicopter way up in the sky, and attached to it is a silhouette of PNG. Hanging up high on the rope is a bunch of politicians cutting the rope above their heads with a big tramontina that has "idependence" etched on it.

There is no future in the current system. 


Sunday, December 31, 2023

How would you describe your philosophy?

 


I don’t think anyone has ever asked me the question posed above. When I tell people that I am an economist, some of them ask about my views on economics before regaling me with their opinions. When I tell people that I am a blogger, they usually ask what I blog about before telling me what I should blog about. I don’t claim to be a philosopher, so there has been no reason for anyone to ask me to describe my philosophy.

However, a comment by Ed Younkins in the addendum to the preceding post on this blog prompted me to think about whether it would be possible for me (as a casual reader of philosophy) to prepare a coherent summary of my philosophical beliefs.

Some readers might be interested in the process I used to summarise my views. I asked ChatGPT to ask a series of questions to help me to explore my philosophical beliefs. I responded to her questions by providing copies of extracts from blog posts etc. that I had written, and asked her to summarise my responses. The summary she produced was done competently, but I did some further editing.

I view the outcome as a work in progress. If anyone points to holes in my reasoning, I will endeavour not to be excessively defensive in my responses.

Summary

I am a Neo-Aristotelian classical liberal.

As will be apparent from what follows, I am strongly of the opinion that it is appropriate to consider what kind of thing an individual human is before engaging in philosophical reasoning related to any aspect of human experience. That is why many of my beliefs are grounded in current scientific knowledge (and speculation) about human evolution, neurology, and psychology.

It seems appropriate to begin with philosophy of mind because awareness of our own awareness is the starting point for all consciousness reasoning. I will then proceed to outline views on epistemology, metaphysics, human nature, ethics, and political philosophy.

Philosophy of Mind:

We cannot doubt that we think. When we are thinking, we may be aware of the flow of inner thoughts and feelings and of our experience of the world in which live. Our observations of other animals suggest that they share with us some awareness of their surroundings. That awareness is a product of evolution – it serves a purpose in helping animals to survive and reproduce. Similarly, our awareness of our own awareness is just another step in the evolutionary process – the purpose it serves is to help individual humans to flourish within the cultures in which they live.  (Main influence: Richard Campbell).

Epistemology:

Humans are born with a potential to acquire knowledge that is particularly relevant to human flourishing. However, knowledge acquisition is primarily experiential. Experiences during early childhood have a major impact on brain development. As brains mature, neural maps become increasingly solidified, but brains retain some plasticity throughout life. Brains learn by evaluating feedback from actions taken – they adjust internal models when predictions are incorrect.

Conscious reasoning plays a crucial role in determining what knowledge adult humans acquire. It makes sense to use probabilistic reasoning when considering alternative explanations for observed phenomena.

Practical wisdom (wise and well-informed self-direction) is integral to individual flourishing. As well as being important in its own right, it helps individuals to maintain good physical and psychological health, good relations with other people, and to live in harmony with nature. (Influences: Aristotle, David Eagleman, Michael Huemer).

Metaphysics:

Metaphysical realism: We exist as part of a real world. Beings exist independently of our cognition of them. (Influences: Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl).

Human Nature:

Humans have inherent potentialities that are good. (Main influence: Abraham Maslow).

Ethics:

Our awareness that we need to make something of our lives emerges before we can make conscious choices relating to our individual flourishing. Ethical intuitions relating to traditional virtues – practical wisdom, integrity, courage, temperance, justice – are a product of social evolution and family upbringing.

Ethical intuitions provide only a foundation for ethical reasoning. Although everyone has a natural inclination to engage in activities that contribute to their own flourishing, actualization of their individual potential requires some understanding of that potential, and the application of practical wisdom that is linked to that person’s dispositions and circumstances. Each individual is responsible for developing his or her own character, and adopting the good habits required to flourish more fully. (Influences: Robert Nozick, Aristotle, Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen).

Political Philosophy:

Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends provided they do not encroach upon the rights of others. Recognition of individual rights enables individuals to flourish in different ways without interfering unduly with the flourishing of others.

The role of government is protection of individual rights. Performance other roles should be contingent upon consent of the governed. (Influences: Friedrich Hayek, James M Buchanan, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl).

Notes

The summary presented above focuses on some broad categories of philosophical beliefs. I have left out some categories of beliefs (philosophy of science and methodology of economics) because they are too specific to be covered in this overview. One of the most popular posts on this blog is about aesthetics, but I have not read widely on that topic. Some other important categories (e.g. religion) have been left out because I prefer not to display my ignorance.

Anyone interested in further explanation of my beliefs is welcome to ask me. Many of the relevant topics are covered in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. There are also relevant articles on this blog that have been written since that book was published e.g. a discussion of Richard Campbell’s views on the emergence of consciousness (here), and David Eagleman’s views on neural mapping and plasticity (here).

References

Philosophy of Mind

Campbell, Richard, The Metaphysics of Emergence, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Epistemology

Aristotle, The Complete Works (Kindle Edition), ATN Classics, 2023.

Eagleman, David, Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, Canongate Paperback, 2021.

Huemer, Michael, Understanding Knowledge, 2022.

Metaphysics

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Human Nature

Maslow, Abraham, Toward a Psychology of Being (Chapter 14), D Van Nostrand, 1962

Ethics

 Nozick, Robert. Invariances, The Structure of the Objective World, Harvard University Press, 2001.

Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics (Translator: F.H. Peters) Online Library of Liberty, 1893

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Political Philosophy

Hayek, Friedrich. The Constitution of Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.


Monday, December 18, 2023

Why am I thinking about selfishness during the season of goodwill?

 


The reason I am thinking about selfishness has to do with Ayn Rand. It has little to do with her attitude toward Christmas, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the sentiment expressed in the quote above (written by Ayn Rand in the December 1976 entry in The Objectivist Calendar). I had previously wondered whether Rand might have been one of those people who say “Bah Humbug!” at this time of the year.

I have been prompted to think about Rand’s view of selfishness by a discussion that has been taking place on The Savvy Street. Ed Younkins wrote an essay, Objectivism and Individual Perfectionism: A Comparison, which has induced Roger Bissell to write a two-part response. Bissell’s responses have been published under the title: Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Decoded: Replies to Recent Criticisms of the Objectivist Ethics. (Part 2 is here.)

Before I discuss those contributions, it is relevant to mention my previous attempts to understand Ayn Rand’s view of selfishness. Before you finish reading the essay you will understand why that is relevant. 

My previous musings

I was brought up to believe that selfishness is a sin. In Australia, it is common for parents tell children not to be selfish, for example, if they attempt to take more than a fair share of a delicacy at mealtimes. What the parents mean is that such opportunistic behavior shows no regard for others. People of goodwill would not do such things.

Perhaps that understanding of the meaning of selfishness was reinforced by Australia’s “fair go” culture. Dictionary definitions of selfishness suggest, however, that it is also common for selfishness to be viewed similarly in Britain and the United States.

I can’t remember when I first became aware that Ayn Rand viewed selfishness as a virtue, and had written a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. During the 1990s, I was certainly aware that most the small number of Australians who were knew of Rand’s existence were of the opinion that she and her followers were ethically challenged and encouraged narcissism. That view was later expounded in a book by Anne Manne, which I commented upon here.

In a post on this blog in 2009 I asked myself: Did Ayn Rand regard selfishness as a virtue? I knew she did, but I pondered the question because the heroes of Atlas Shrugged did not seem to me to be selfish. I noted that Rand’s view that selfishness is a virtue followed from a narrow definition of selfishness as “concern with one’s own interests”, and speculated that Rand had used that definition to draw attention to her opposition to the view that self-sacrifice is a virtue.

A few months later, I wrote on the topic, How far can Ayn Rand’s ethical egoism be defended? That post was an attempt to summarize some of the views of participants in a Cato symposium on ‘What’s living and dead in Ayn Rand’s moral and political thought’. One of the aspects I focused on was the question of whether Rand, like Aristotle, viewed virtue – including regard for others - as a constitutive part of the agent’s own interest, or as an instrumental strategy for attaining that interest. Although the participants in the discussion were all scholars familiar with Rand’s writings, they were unable to agree on that point.

The other aspect I focused on was the question of whether it was defensible for Rand to argue that what is objectively good and right for one individual cannot conflict with what is objectively good and right for another individual. Most, but not all, of the participants viewed that argument as indefensible.

Younkins’s contribution

In his essay, Ed Younkins seeks to compare the ideas of Ayn Rand with those of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl (the Dougs). Younkins’s purpose is mainly descriptive and explanatory, but Roger Bissell has seen his contribution to be critical of Rand.

The summary table published at the end of Younkins’s essay is reproduced below.

Younkins's Summary Table



My focus here is entries relating Normative Morality, the Virtues, and Conflicts of Interest. The discussion in the preceding post on this blog is relevant to “the Good and Value”.

Younkin’s summary table doesn’t mention Rand’s view of selfishness explicitly, but it is lurking in the background in his discussion of morality, the virtues and conflicts of interest.

Bissell’s response

Roger Bissell doesn’t accept that Rand’s primary concern in respect of normative morality was that the agent should always be the beneficiary of his actions. He notes that in the introduction of The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand states that ego vs altruism is not the fundamental issue in ethics. He claims that “under all the ‘selfishness’ window dressing”, Rand is “actually just another individualistic perfectionist”. Perhaps Bissell is correct, but if so I am left wondering again, as in 2009, what purpose Rand saw in the selfishness window dressing.

With regard to the virtues, Bissell objects to the implication that Rand did not regard them as constitutive of a person’s flourishing. That difference of opinion takes me back to the Cato symposium referred to earlier, where several scholars were unable to agree on that point. My conclusion is that Rand’s views on that matter cannot have been stated clearly and consistently.

Roger Bissell’s support of Rand’s view on conflicts on interest also brings to mind the views expressed in the Cato symposium. I find it difficult to understand why anyone who recognises the importance of property rights would seek to defend the proposition that there can be no conflicts of interest among rational and objective individuals. Nevertheless, Bissell makes a heroic effort:

“To put it yet another way: whatever conflict two rational people might have on the level of individual values is subordinate to and outweighed by the common value they both have in everyone’s doing their own personal best and letting specific outcomes be determined within the framework of voluntary choice and peaceful interaction. They want their specific individual values to be achieved, but not at any cost—while they want their common higher rational values to be upheld, whatever the cost.”   

Perhaps we could imagine two rational and objective individuals with conflicting interests – for example, a farmer and a cowman living on the American prairie in the 19th century – agreeing on rules about property rights at an authentic constitutional convention, of the kind suggested by James Buchanan and Gordon Tulloch. However, it should be noted that the possibility of agreement has less to do with the personal qualities of the participants than with the imagined institutional context in which participants are uncertain about the impact that rules under consideration might have on their interests, and those of their descendants.

The ability of rational and objective individuals to avoid conflict are greatly enhanced by social, political, and legal orders that enable individuals to pursue their own ends without interfering with each other. Friedrich Hayek made the point clearly:

“The understanding that ‘good fences make good neighbors’, that is, that men can use their knowledge in the pursuit of their own ends without colliding with each other only if clear boundaries can be drawn between their respective domains of free action, is the basis on which all known civilization has grown.” (LLL, Vol1, 107)

The metanormative ethics expounded by the Dougs seems to me to be consistent with that view. Recognition of individual rights provides a context in which individuals can flourish in different ways without interfering with the flourishing of others.

Concluding comments

Ed Younkins concluded his essay by noting that although Ayn Rand differs from Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl “on how a number of issues are expressed, they agree on the desirability of a free society and are among the best-known proponents of capitalism from a neo-Aristotelian perspective”.

Roger Bissell concludes his response by suggesting that Younkins’s “descriptions of Rand’s ideas are too often inaccurate and his explanations too often flow from misunderstanding of those ideas”. I don’t know enough about Rand’s philosophy to make an independent judgement of the veracity of Bissell’s claims, but it is clear from contributions to the Cato symposium that I have mentioned several times that Younkins’s views are shared by other scholars who are familiar with Rand’s philosophical efforts.

It seems to me that this difference of opinion over the description of Rand’s ideas should be viewed in the context of ongoing discussions between those who see Objectivism as a closed system and those who see it as an open system. Those who see objectivism as a closed system accept that people should not label themselves as Objectivists unless they agree with all of Rand’s philosophy. Those who view objectivism as open system believe that it can be enhanced by incorporating new ideas that are broadly compatible with Rand’s ideas. (Younkins discusses the different views here).

I have the impression that those who see objectivism as an open system have an interest in minimizing the difference between Individualistic Perfectionism and Rand’s philosophy. As I see it, the Individualistic Perfectionism developed by Rasmussen and Den Uyl has been influenced by Rand, but deserves to be viewed as a coherent body of ideas that differs somewhat from Objectivism.


Addendum

Ed Younkins has provided the following comment.

"It seems to me that the Dougs (Rasmussen and Den Uyl) want to create some distance between Individual Perfectionism (IP) and Objectivism (O). Roger Bissell, on the other hand, appears to be be acting as if IP does not exist as separate from O. He may be viewing the Dougs as open Objectivists (like he appears to be), but who are mistaken in their interpretation of some of what Rand is saying. Younkins, like Winton Bates, is not wedded to either O or IP. Both Younkins and Bates  may be Rand influenced (as are the Dougs), but each of them develops his own unique and particular philosophical worldview or paradigm of freedom and flourishing (as do the Dougs). Of course, each of the 5 individuals mentioned (who are all friends) is promoting his own vision and version of a philosophy of human flourishing in a free society. This is how it should be."





Saturday, December 9, 2023

Did Ayn Rand recognize the capacity to exercise practical wisdom as a basic good?




 This question is of interest to me for two reasons. First, I am a fan of Ayn Rand’s novels. Second, in the first chapter of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I seek to identify the basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have.

My view of basic goods

The chapter identified the basic goods as: wise and well-informed self-direction, health and longevity, positive relationships, living in harmony with nature, and psychological well-being. I suggested that the exercise of wise and well-informed self-direction helps individuals to obtain other basic goods.

The chapter also noted that Aristotle saw the exercise of reason as the function that distinguishes humans from other animals and held that a good man’s purpose is to reason well (and beautifully).

I argued that individuals develop and realize their potential for wise and well-informed self-direction largely by learning from experience. I therefore accepted implicitly that it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make choices that on mature reflection they might later regret.

Rand’s view

Until recently, I was fairly sure that my view of what is good for humans was broadly similar to that of Ayn Rand. Some of the things she wrote suggest that impression was correct. For example, John Galt’s speech (quoted above) suggests that it is good for humans to have the capacity to exercise practical wisdom. A similar sentiment is expressed in the following passage in the chapter, ‘What is Capitalism?’ in Capitalism: The unknown ideal:

“Man’s essential characteristic is his rational faculty. Man’s mind is his basic means of survival – his only means of gaining knowledge.”

However, later in that essay, in endorsing “the objective theory” of the nature of the good, Rand rejects the idea that good can be an attribute of things in themselves:

“The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of ‘things in themselves’ nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value.”

It seems to me that Rand is suggesting that it would not be legitimate to say that the capacity to exercise practical wisdom – which is a thing in itself - is a good attribute for an individual to have, irrespective of how it is used. Rand seems to be implying that having the capability is only good when it is used to make evaluations according to a rational standard of value.

Grades of actuality

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl (the Dougs) seem to me to provide a less ambiguous approach to considering the nature of the good in a recent article in which they compare their Individualistic Perfectionism (IP) to Rand’s Objectivist Ethics (OE). (‘Three Forms of Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism: A Comparison’, Reason Papers 43, 2, 14-43, 2023.)

The Dougs acknowledge that a person does not have a concept of moral good apart from the self-directed use of their conceptual capacity. The human good is individualized. It is good for a human being to engage in the act of discovering human good.

However, the Dougs suggest that the process of discovering the human good can be thought of in terms of grades of actuality:

“IP holds with Aristotle that there is a distinction between grades of actuality when it comes to living things. The first grade of actuality is the possession of a set of capacities that are also potentialities for a living thing’s second grade of actuality—that is, their actual use or deployment by a living thing. Included among the set of potentialities of a human being that comprise its first grade of actuality is the potential to exercise one’s conceptual capacity. This first grade of actuality is a cognitive-independent reality. However, when one’s conceptual capacity is exercised and used in a manner that actualizes the other potentialities that require it, then a second grade of actuality is attained. For example, one has the capacity to know one’s good and attain it (first grade of actuality), but one needs to engage in knowing and attaining it in order to be fully actualized (second grade of actuality).”

One’s inner nature

In 2008 I wrote a blog post on the topic, ‘Is our inner nature good?’. The post consisted of a discussion of the views of Abraham Maslow, Aristotle, J S Mill, David Hume, and Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund. My outline of the views of Abraham Maslow is reproduced below because it seems relevant to the current discussion.

Abraham Maslow suggested that humans have an inner nature or core which is good. According to Maslow this inner core is “potentiality, but not final actualization”. He argued that in principle our inner core can easily self-actualize, but this rarely happens in practice due to the many human diminution forces including fear of self-actualization and the limiting belief in society that human nature is evil (“Toward a Psychology of Being”, 1968, chapter 14).

On reflection, I am not sure that the concept of an inner nature makes much sense. However, the idea that all humans have good potentiality is appealing.

Conclusions

In my view it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make choices, that on mature reflection, they might later regret.

I am unsure whether Ayn Rand would have agreed. At one point she seems to imply that a capacity to exercise practical wisdom is only good when it is used to make evaluations according to a rational standard of values.

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl offer a less ambiguous approach by recognizing different grades of actuality. They suggest that the first grade of actuality is cognitive-independent. On that basis, there is no reason to doubt that the potential to exercise practical wisdom is good.

I like the idea that all humans have good potentiality.

Postscript

My understanding of the quoted passage by Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl is as follows:

Though we must use our minds and act in the appropriate manner to self-actualize, that is, to attain our second grade of actuality, it does not follow from this that what is being actualized is merely a potentiality.  Rather, it is a cognitive-independent actuality that also has potentialities.  The distinction between actuality and potentiality in the case of living things does not require a dichotomy. It is not 'either-or'. Aristotle is subtle.

Moreover, though attaining one's second grade of actuality requires both cognition and practical actions to exist, this does not make human good simply an evaluation (which Rand claims). To hold that an objective view of human good is an evaluation is a further non sequitur.  Consider this analogy:  Phar Lap was a thoroughbred racehorse, as such he would not have existed without much human thought and effort, and in terms of the function of racehorses he was very good.  But the reality of his goodness did not consist in our evaluation of him as good but in how well he fulfilled his function. The same is so for human beings, mutatis mutandis.  Humans attaining their second-grade of actuality does require cognitive effort and choice, but this does make the goodness thereby expressed merely an evaluation.

Further Reading

I was prompted to write this contribution by my reading of two recent essays on The Savvy Street:

Ed Younkins, Objectivism and Individual Perfectionism: A Comparison; and

Roger Bissell, Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Decoded: Replies to Recent Criticisms of the Objectivist Ethics.

Roger Bissell has also responded to this essay.

I encourage anyone wishing to obtain a better understanding of the issues to read those articles as well as the article by the Dougs referred to above.


Monday, July 24, 2023

Where is the soul of libertarianism?

 


Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have contributed an excellent history of libertarian ideas in their recently published book, The Individualists. The question I pose for myself is related to the subtitle of the book: “Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism”.

The reason Zwolinski and Tomasi refer to individualists rather than to libertarians in the main title is presumably because they believe that a commitment to “individualism is at the core of libertarianism”. They also note that many of the most intellectually active friends of liberty in Britain were known as individualists before the term libertarian caught on.

Synopsis

The authors spend some time discussing who is, or isn’t, a libertarian. They note that “libertarian” has been used in both a strict sense, to refer specifically to those who see liberty as a moral absolute, and in a broad sense, to include classical liberals who view liberty as a strong presumption. The book discusses the views of contemporary classical liberals, such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, as well as those of “strict libertarians”, but doesn’t devote much attention to historical classical liberalism.

Zwolinski and Tomasi identify six markers which form the core of a libertarian world view: private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, spontaneous order, individualism, and negative liberty. They observe that while libertarians don’t necessarily view those principles as absolutes, they typically see them “as a tightly integrated system of thought, with each commitment being supported by, and lending support to, the others”.

After providing a historical overview, the book discusses the history of radical and reactionary libertarian ideas relating to private property, libertarian anarchism, big business and free markets, poverty and spontaneous order, racial justice and individualism, and global justice and noninterventionism. Much of this information was familiar but I was surprised about how much was new to me.

Zwolinski and Tomasi’s final chapter focuses largely on the battle between bleeding heart libertarians, left libertarians and paleolibertarians for control of the libertarian party in the United States. The authors conclude that libertarianism is “intrinsically a diverse ideology”, and that “the struggle between libertarianism’s progressive and conservative tendencies, a struggle for the soul of libertarianism, is likely to go on”.

That may be an appropriate way to end a history of ideas directed to an audience composed largely of people who live in the USA. As a person who doesn’t fit into that category, however, I am concerned that describing differences of opinion as “a struggle for the soul of libertarianism” may generate more heat than light. As I see it, libertarians should be encouraged to acknowledge good ideas whether they are espoused by conservative or progressive libertarians. I would have preferred to see the book end by acknowledging that libertarians are engaged in an ongoing struggle against authoritarianism as people on opposing sides of the culture wars seek to enlist the coercive powers of the state to pursue their interests.

More fundamentally, the struggle the authors describe - about which set of political prescriptions will come to be most closely identified with the ideology – seems to me to be conducted without much reference to the soul, or essence, of libertarianism. The book left me wanting to promote the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi may have good reasons for not exploring that idea more fully in their book, but it seems to me to be an idea that deserves to be given more attention.

The soul of libertarianism

In my view, the passage from Wilhelm von Humboldt quoted at the beginning of this review comes close to capturing the soul of libertarianism. Liberty is the best principle for the coexistence of humans because it offers conditions most favourable to self-directed individual flourishing.

Humboldt’s contributions influenced John Stuart Mill in writing On Liberty. They were also acknowledged by Friedrich Hayek in the conclusion of the chapter of The Constitution of Liberty discussing education and research:

“And we cannot think of better words to conclude than those of Wilhelm von Humboldt which a hundred years ago John Stuart Mill put in front of his essay On Liberty: ‘The grand, the leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity’.”

Readers who are eager to know more about Humboldt will find an online article by George H Smith published on libertarianism.org to be of interest.

The discussion of egoism in The Individualists is relevant to considering the link between liberty and individual flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi note that in the 19th century American libertarians, such as Benjamin Tucker, were influenced by Max Stirner, a German theorist, who held that the only standard or right was the ability to transform one’s will into action. That view is in stark contrast to the ethical egoism advocated by Ayn Rand and her followers during the 20th century. Rand denied that might makes right and argued that egoism is compatible with recognition of universal natural rights.

The link between liberty and individual flourishing is recognized today in the writings of some classical liberal and libertarian authors. Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl deserve special mention because they have developed related ideas rigorously in their trilogy of books: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn.

Readers looking for a non-technical introduction to these ideas may find relevant discussion in various places including an article by Ed Younkins on The Savvy Street, and in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  Rasmussen and Den Uyl have provided a summary of their views in Chapter 2 of The Realist Turn. A quote from the conclusion of that chapter will convey the essence of their understanding of the role of liberty in the context of human flourishing.

“In essence, natural rights represent a realization of certain normative requirements that are inherent in the individualized nature of human flourishing within a social context. In particular, when thinking about rights, we are concerned with the conditions that must be secured for the individualized nature of flourishing to function. Although liberty is the key term in this context, we regard it not as the central concept for flourishing generally, but only with regard to setting the social context for flourishing. And although we reject constructivism as a foundational principle, we recognize the role of social constructs within the constraints provided by a framework of natural rights. As such, our theory is not about the whole of political and social life, but about the political/legal structure within which such life should and must be allowed to function if flourishing is our standard.”

Conclusions

My reading of The Individualists by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi has prompted me to present a view about the soul of libertarianism. Zwolinski and Tomasi end their excellent history of libertarian ideas by suggesting that progressive and conservative factions within libertarianism will continue to struggle over the soul of libertarianism. I put the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Wilhelm von Humboldt came close to capturing the soul of libertarianism 230 years ago when he suggested: “The highest ideal … of the co-​existence of human beings seems to me to consist in a union in which each strives to develop himself from his own innermost nature, and for his own sake”. The link between liberty and individual flourishing has been recognized by many libertarians and classical liberals, and is rigorously explained in the writings of Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl.

References

Bates, Winton, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, Hamilton Books, 2021.

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Smith, George H., ‘The Culture of Liberty: Wilhelm von Humboldt’, libertarianism.org, 2013.

Younkins, Edward W., ‘Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s Trilogy of Freedom and Flourishing’, The Savvy Street, 2021.