A Footnote about Liberty and the Social Compact

This is an appendix to “Liberty as a Social Compact” and “Social Norms and Liberty.” In those posts I first made the case that

liberty is not an abstract ideal. Liberty cannot be sustained without the benefit of widely accepted — and enforced — social norms. A society that revolves around norms established within families and close-knit social groups is most likely to serve liberty.

From which it follows that

the attainment of something like liberty and happiness requires the acceptance of — and compliance with — some social norms that one may find personally distasteful if not oppressive. But it is possible — in a large and diverse nation where each social group is free to establish and enforce its own norms — to find a place that comes closest to suiting one’s conception of liberty and happiness. The critical qualfication is that each social group must free to establish and enforce its own norms, as long as those norms include voice and exit.

The validity of these observations depends critically on the source of rights. As I have argued at length,

[r]ights — though they can exist without the sanction of government and the protection of a state — are political. That is, although rights may arise from human nature, they have no essence until they are recognized through interpersonal bargaining (politics), in the service of self-interest. It is bargaining that determines whether we recognize only the negative right of liberty, or the positive right of privilege as well. The preference of human beings — revealed over eons of coexistence — is to recognize both liberty (usually constrained to some degree) and privilege (which necessitates constraints on liberty).

The liberty I alluded to there was the “pure” liberty of John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” (see footnote), which can be summarized as the negative right to be left alone — in one’s person, pursuits, and property — as long as one leaves others alone. “Pure” liberty is a mere abstraction. Actual liberty must necessarily involve compromises (constraints), which are inevitable in a society of varied personalities that exists in a particular time and place.

In support of the argument that rights are political, I quoted from Denis Dutton’s review of Paul H. Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom; Alan Fiske’s essay, “The Inherent Sociability of Homo Sapiens“; David Stephens’s “Impulsive behavior may be relict of hunter-gatherer past“; and a summary of J. Philippe Rushton’s article, “Genetic and environmental contributions to prosocial attitudes: A twin study of social responsibility.”

The full implication of those studies is that what we call “rights” — the kinds of behaviors in which we may engage with impunity — must be consistent with morality — the kinds of behaviors that society recognizes as “right.” The kinds of behaviors that society recognizes as “right” must, in turn, foster the survival and success of society. Robin Allott explains, in “Objective Morality“:

No society is healthy or creative or strong unless that society has a set of common values that give meaning and purpose to group life. . . . Empathy is seen both as the foundation of the unity of feeling which forms an aggregation of individuals into a coherent group and as the source of the effectiveness of the group’s code of behavior, the group morality. . . .

One can list various types of motivation which do, or may, lead individuals to accept and seek to observe the morality of their group. There may be childhood imprinting of the moral rules of the family or group, leading to a prerational application of the code, operating rather like post-hypnotic suggestion — automatic moral responses to predetermined situations. A variant or support of this takes the form of religious endorsement of moral principles — religious sanctions reinforcing introjected moral reflexes. Or morality may be rationalized as the pursuit of happiness, pleasure or utility — high level ethical theories perhaps, rather than practical motivations. Or moral behavior may result from prudence or superstition — following the rules for fear of something worse. . . . More generally, moral behavior may flow from a desire for a worthwhile, productive life, a rational desire of the individual to survive and avoid bodily or mental damage. This may be associated with empathetic identification with the group, its survival and prosperity. . . .

The objective necessity of morality has been demonstrated by life over many generations. However it is not open to immediate rational demonstration. Morality is concerned with remote consequences. The problem is that we have no easy way of seeing the long-term or otherwise distant consequences of following or not following moral rules or showing the consequences for ourselves, for our family or for the group to which we belong. What can we say to the immoralist who claims total moral freedom, who asks: Why not lies? Why not intemperance? Why not promiscuity? Why not theft or fraud? Why not murder? Why not cruelty?

One answer may be: In the absence of morality, you are in a world of powerful, clever, unpredictable animals. Only by understanding others can you protect yourself. Others in the group will only be predictable to the extent that they follow the same moral rules and are moved by the same emotions. A group’s morality is concerned not only with how an individual should judge his own action but with how other members of the group, and the group collectively will judge the individual’s actions and respond to them. Judge your own action so that you are not judged by others. Others will do unto you what you do unto them. So do not do unto them what you would not want them to do unto you. An individual who rejects the morality of the group rejects empathetic membership of the group and empathetic recognition by others of his membership of the group. The individual becomes a moral parasite living on the morality of the group which he does not observe. To him a different level of morality will apply — the more primitive kind of morality applied to those not members of the group, to outlaws and outcasts. By asserting your unlimited moral freedom, you risk losing your own freedom.

We ignore, at our peril, the lessons of the ages. Contrary to libertarian purists, the path to liberty is not found in Mill’s simplistic “harm principle,” which is a formula for atomism. The path to liberty winds tortuously through the complexity of human nature, which shapes — and is shaped by — a society’s mutual striving to survive and prosper. To give a stark but apt example: If you will kill an unborn child for your convenience, why should I trust you not to kill me for your convenience when I am old? And if I cannot trust you, why should I subscribe to the defense of your life, property, and pursuits?
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The “harm principle,” from Chapter 1 of On Liberty:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.