This is the fourth installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States. In this installment, I take up the second of several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty in America.
If you have not read the first three installments, “Liberty and Society,” “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” and “Genetic Kinship and Society,” I recommend that you do so before you continue. This post addresses the following question: Am I Endorsing Moral Relativism?
In “Liberty and Society,” I argue that
liberty — “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others” — is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific definition of harm. Why? Because harm is not a fixed thing — like the number 1 or your house — it is a vague concept that has meaning only when it refers to specific types of act, which then may be judged as harmful by some and unharmful by others. But until harm is defined and agreed through mutual consent (explicit or implicit), liberty lacks real meaning.
Liberty, in other words, is a social construct, without a fixed meaning. Further, harm is not a single thing; it is many things, each of which is socially defined. Each harm refers to a right; the right not to be killed without (specified) cause, for example. The collection of rights (anti-harms) defines the scope of liberty in a particular society. Liberty is therefore divisible, to some extent; that is, a person might enjoy most of his socially agreed rights, but not all of them, because of this action by government or that action by a compatriot or enemy. (It is wrong, however, to assume that one can divide rights between social and economic categories; what is called economic activity is nothing more than a particular aspect of social activity, and the denial of certain economic rights is also a denial of social rights.)
Before you accuse me of moral relativism, consider the following. I am not endorsing a particular social construct, merely describing reality. The ugly reality is that in some societies there are barbarous acts which are considered to be moral, or to be justified because they are committed to enforce a moral code. One need look no further than certain Islamic sects, which endorse acts of terror against infidels, the stoning to death of adulterous women, and the imprisonment of homosexuals just because they are homosexuals. Are those acts justified by their broad acceptance within the Islamic sects that preach and practice them? Not in my view, certainly. But abhorrence of such acts does not negate the fact that they are accepted as normal within certain societies.
These facts will not dissuade moral absolutists, among whose number are deontological libertarians. Such libertarians like to believe that there is a “correct” moral code, and that it is known to them. This is a rather priestly pretension for a sect whose ranks are populated mainly by atheists. Persons who come to moral absolutism through religious conviction have the advantage of intellectual consistency.
By the deontological account, every human being is endowed with certain inalienable rights — “natural rights.” What are those rights? One might assume that deontologists agree unanimously about them, inasmuch as deontologists accept the non-aggression principle and self-ownership as axiomatic. But the devil, as always, is in the details. Does the non-aggression principle preclude abortion? Some deontologists say that it does; others, that it does not. Does the non-aggression principle preclude a preemptive strike when it is evident that an enemy is about to attack? Again, it depends on which deontologist answers the question. I could go on, but that should be enough to tell you that deontology is no guarantee of moral certainty. In fact, deontology is nothing more than Mill’s harm principle in fancy dress And it has the same fatal flaw: It is a general statement into which one may pour a variety of specific meanings. (See “Liberty and Society.”) Efforts by deontologists to ground “natural rights” in evolutionary biology are equally fatuous. (See “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” and “More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology.”)
Then there are consequentialist libertarians, who claim that a regime of negative rights is best because it yields the greatest good for the greatest number. But the problem with that stance is its utilitarianism, that is, its presumption that the welfare of one person can be weighed against that of another person. (See “Enough of Social Welfare.”)
What about “progressives,” who are like deontological libertarians in the certainty with which they proclaim “natural rights,” which they (“progressives”) like to call “universal rights” and “human rights.” Unsurprisingly, “progressive” conceptions of rights are unlike those of most libertarians, who recognize only negative rights (“bleeding hearts” excepted). “Progressives” are champions of positive rights, that is, claims against the produce and property of others.
Who is to say that the “progressives” are wrong and hard-core libertarians are right? In other words, if there is a moral high ground, who decides who is standing on it? If a group of “progressives” were to form a cohesive society in which certain positive rights were agreed and accepted by all, without resort to coercion, would that not be a legitimate state of affairs? I have to admit that it would be.
That said, there is among “progressives” broad resistance to a pure share-and-share-alike ethos. In fact, “progressives” adhere to a share-this-much-but-no-more ethos. Though the “sharing” is not true sharing but redistribution by government edict. And the proper amount of “sharing” is always an idiosyncratic product of “progressive” attitudes du jour.
If you seek a good example of moral relativism, you can always find it in “progressivism,” with its ad hoc morality. Consequentialist libertarianism is no better, in principle, though when it comes to policy, consequentialists tend to be indistinguishable from deontologists. The latter, if they are nothing else, are demi-paragons of moral absolutism. If they were paragons, they would all discover the same operational code — one that goes deeper than an invocation of “natural rights.”
But I have wandered from the main point, which is whether variations in moral codes necessarily denote significant differences as to the nature of morality. Moral codes have two types of component: core values and instrumental values. Core values usually are expressed as absolutes: You shall not kill; you shall not steal; and so on. And those values may be held in common by many societies, even though those societies may have markedly different instrumental values.
The Amish, for example, subscribe to the core values that are enunciated in the Ten Commandments. But their instrumental values vary from sect to sect; thus:
Amish lifestyle is dictated by the Ordnung (German, meaning: order), which differs slightly from community to community, and, within a community, from district to district. What is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another. No summary of Amish lifestyle and culture can be totally adequate, because there are few generalities that are true for all Amish. Groups may separate over matters such as the width of a hat-brim, the color of buggies, or other issues.
The last sentence of the quotation will cause “sophisticates” to smirk, though secular “sophisticates” are loathe to associate with persons who hold “mistaken” views about abortion, child-rearing, capital punishment, and the proper role of government — to name but a few examples. And yet, those same “sophisticates” will agree with their ideological enemies that murder, theft, and several other acts are wrong. The devil, as I say, is in the details.
Instrumental values may be as trivial (to the non-Amish) as the width of a hat-brim, or as consequential (to a large number of persons on the left and right) as the proper punishment for premeditated murder (i.e., whether it should be incarceration, perhaps with a rehabilitative aim, or execution).
Why are instrumental values so important? And do differences about instrumental values preclude common cause with respect to core values?
A society is much more than its core values, As I have said,
[a] society coheres around genetic kinship, and is defined by its common culture, which includes its moral code. The culture is developed, transmitted through, and enforced by the voluntary institutions of society (civil society). The culture is the product of trial and error, where those elements that become part of received culture serve societal coherence and — in the best case — help it to thrive. Coherence and success depend also on the maintenance of mutual respect, trust, and forbearance among society’s members. Those traits arise in part from the sharing of a common culture (which is an artifact of societal interaction) and from genetic kinship, which is indispensable to societal coherence.
(On the importance of genetic kinship, see “Genetic Kinship and Society.”)
But genetic kinship stretches only so far as a bonding material. When a person — even a person of the “right” race and ethnicity — flouts a society’s instrumental values, he signals disrespect for all of that society values, not just disrespect for the instrumental values in question. Take the predominantly white, flag-burning, rampaging, long-haired, bearded war-protestors of the 1960s and early 1970s, for example. Even though the United States is not a society and never has been one, it cohered in Old America because of commonalities among the societies of which it was composed. To be long-haired and bearded in the 1960s and early 1970s was (rightly) taken not just as a sign of one’s anti-war views but as a sign of one’s rejection of the values common to the societies of Old America. And so it was that to wear one’s hair long and to sport a beard (especially if the hair and beard were unkempt) was to risk a beating at the hands of white “good old boys.” (That the “good old boys” later adopted long hair and shaggy beards only underscores the role of signaling in social solidarity.)
It is nevertheless possible for societies that differ in their instrumental values to find common cause — as long as the differences are not too great:
Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid. The inhabitants of Old America were against “entitlements” (charity was real and not accepted lightly); for punishment (as opposed to excuses about poverty, etc.); overtly religious or respectful of religion (and, in either case, generally respectful of the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them); personally responsible (stuff happens, and it is rarely someone else’s fault); polite, respectful, and helpful to strangers (who are polite and respectful); patriotic (the U.S. was better than other countries and not beholden to international organizations, wars were fought to victory); and anti-statist (even if communitarian in a voluntary way). Living on the dole, weirdness for its own sake, open hostility to religion, habitual criminality, “shacking up,” and homosexuality were disgraceful aberrations, not “lifestyles” to be tolerated, celebrated, or privileged.
Old America was a large and richly diverse nation, united as much as it could be — and as much as it needed to be for mutual self-defense. Much of that unity has been undone by the purveyors of “diversity” (i.e., state-imposed preferences), who are also the purveyors of “equality” (i.e., unearned entitlements). Those same purveyors are moral relativists who cannot bring themselves to keep Americans safe from violent sub-cultures, at home and abroad.
Which brings me to my criteria for judging moral codes:
1. A code must be socially evolved, not imposed by the state. (Though the state may enforce a moral code that reflects social norms.)
2. A code that fosters beneficent behavior must conform to the Ten Commandments, or to the last six of them, at least.
3. Those who dissent from the code must be able to voice their dissent; otherwise, the code ceases to be socially evolved. (Dissent does not encompass treason.)
4. Those who cannot abide the code must be able to exit society’s jurisdiction, without penalty.
There is more, if a society is part of a larger polity.
5. That polity is illegitimate if it overrides the otherwise legitimate moral codes of its constituent societies.
6. That polity is illegitimate if it honors inimical moral codes, either overtly or by making acts of obeisance to them. (A case in point: Obama’s support for uprisings in the Middle East — uprisings led by Muslim extremists, as Obama must surely have known.)
7. That polity is illegitimate if, in overriding those moral codes, it effectively negates voice and exit. (This has happened in America, where we are hostages in our own land.)
In closing, it is true that liberty is a social construct. But that is a realistic position, not a morally relativistic one. I am quite prepared to be judgmental of societies and polities. There is a “best” morality. It was widely practiced in Old America. Though it is still practiced in the remnants of Old America, it is vanishing from the United States, mainly because government has sundered social bonds and usurped the role of society as the arbiter of morality. The government of the United States and the governments of most of its political subdivisions are illegitimate because their legal impositions are, for the most part, rooted in envy and power-lust — and not in Judeo-Christian morality.
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Law and Liberty
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society