A Man for No Seasons

A Man for All Seasons, originally a play by Robert Bolt and later an acclaimed film, is about Sir Thomas More (or Saint Thomas More, if you prefer),

the 16th-century Chancellor of England, who refused to endorse King Henry VIII‘s wish to divorce his ageing wife Catherine of Aragon, who could not bear him a son, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress.

Thomas More

opposed Henry [VIII]’s separation from the Catholic Church [because it forbade divorce] and refused to accept the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England…. In 1535, [More] was tried for treason, convicted on perjured testimony and beheaded.

The title of the play

reflects … Bolt’s portrayal of More as the ultimate man of conscience. As one who remains true to himself and his beliefs under all circumstances and at all times, despite external pressure or influence, More represents “a man for all seasons”.

More’s constancy to principle stands in high relief against the amorality and immorality of normal political practices, past and present. These range from opportunism, flip-flopping, and log-rolling to deceit and lying to theft (disguised as “compassion”) and back-stabbing (both figurative and literal).

More’s constancy to principle also stands in high relief against the practice of tailoring one’s principles to fit the data at hand — or the data that one selects to justify one’s prejudices. I have found economists to be especially prone to such tailoring. For example, too many economists justify free markets on utilitarian grounds, that is, because free markets produce more (i.e., are more efficient) than regulated markets. This happens to be true, but free markets can and should be justified mainly because they are free, that is, because they allow individuals to pursue otherwise lawful aims through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges of products and services. Liberty is a principle, a deep value; economic efficiency is merely a byproduct of adherence to that value.

Economists are by no means the only practitioners of utilitarianism. It is rampant in the ranks of public intellectuals, and is exemplified in “Empiricism in politics: On opinions beyond the reach of data,” a piece by Will Wilkinson (hereinafter WW), which begins with this:

DAVID FRUM quotes the following passage of Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010”, in the midst of a long, scathing review (about which I here enter no opinion):

Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.

I found this exceedingly odd. I can easily imagine what evidence would cause me to change my position on any of these issues. How about you? It’s a fun exercise, let’s try.

I will address, in turn, WW’s views on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, and the inheritance tax.

Abortion. This is far and away the hardest one. I favour legal abortion…. I would seriously weigh this moral benefit ]a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty] against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies….

Clearly, WW is a man in search of a principle upon which to hang his preference to allow persons “control over their bodies.” This– as a principle — would justify many immoral acts. For if one’s use of one’s body is not to be interfered with, on what basis could WW condemn murder, for example? And yet he does condemn it, implicitly, when he quibbles about the death penalty as a punishment for murder.

WW (I strongly suspect) might respond that he is talking only about control over what one does to oneself, as in the use of marijuana (to which I will come). But WW is unconvincing with respect to abortion. He is willing to recognize “robust moral rights” for children at birth because that is “the convention.” But before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned long-standing State laws rooted in moral tradition, it was the convention (in most States) to recognize robust moral rights for children at conception. (By contrast, the convention of slavery, which was recognized and fostered by several States, stood on flimsy moral ground.)

The lack of a firm principle (e.g., abortion is murder) leads WW into sophistry and hair-splitting. These abound in the elided portions of the preceding quotation:

…I don’t think embryos or fetuses are persons, and I don’t think it’s wrong to kill them. I also don’t think infants are persons, but I do think laws that prohibit infanticide are wise. Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line, but it’s a supremely salient socio-psychological one. A general abhorrence of the taking of human life is something any healthy culture will inculcate in its members. It’s easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they’ve reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech. The latter society, I suspect, would tend to be more generally cruel and less humane. This is just an empirical hunch, though I feel fairly confident about it. But I could be wrong. And I could be wrong in the other direction as well. If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don’t ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies. Also, if it were shown that abortion tended to damage women’s mental and physical health more than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, I would tend to look more favourably on restrictions on abortion, especially for minors.

Fetuses may not be persons, in WW’s view, but fetuses are human life. WW’s defense of abortion amounts to a defense of taking blameless, defenseless humans. He cannot bring himself to admit that, so he adopts the language of Roe v. Wade (a fetus is not “a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment”). But, as WW acknowledges, there is no specific point at which a human being becomes a “person.” The fetus-person distinction is an entirely arbitrary one, concocted for the purpose of justifying abortion.

If WW is willing to accept birth as the point at which the taking of innocent life becomes unacceptable, why not seven or eight months into a pregnancy, when the chances of survival outside the womb are high, especially given the life-sustaining technologies that are now available? And if a fetus is “viable” at seven or eight months, it is “viable” at earlier stages of development, as long its life is not ended artificially. The “logic” of abortion based on “viability” is circular because a fetus is (almost always) “viable” unless it is aborted.

And why is it not even “easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants” upon conception? Such a society, I believe, would tend to be less cruel and more humane than the one that allows abortion at every stage of fetal development.

WW’s next suggestion is fatuous in the extreme. It need not be shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which do not ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life.” Societies that ban abortion, ceteris paribus, have a culture of life, by definition. By the same token, societies that encourage or acquiesce in atrocities against humanity on a par with abortion (e.g., the Third Reich) have a culture of death. One very good reason for resisting the practice of abortion is to avert the next steps down the slippery slope toward that culture.

Looking unfavorably upon abortion if it tended to damage women’s mental and physical health is putting a possible side effect of abortion above its abhorrent moral status. But that should come as no surprise because, on this issue, WW clearly betrays a lack of moral sense.

This brings me to WW’s next moral test:

Death penalty. This is a lot easier. I oppose the death penalty. But if the death penalty were shown to be (1) a very effective deterrent of murder and violent crime, (2) non-prejudicially applied, and (3) very rarely applied to the innocent, I would support it in especially heinous cases of murder.

This is a lot easier for me, too. You are either for the death penalty as a matter of justice (taking its deterrent value as a bonus), or you are against it because, say, you cannot condone the taking of life by the state. WW, as an advocate of abortion, cannot take the latter position, so he dances around the death penalty — treating it entirely as an exercise in utilitarian calculation. In reality, he takes no position at all because he uses wiggle-words like “very effective,” “non-prejudicially,” “very rarely,” and “especially heinous.”


Legalisation of marijuana. I support legal weed! If it were shown that marijuana is super-addictive, impossible to use responsibly, and that its users predictably harm others and/or egregiously harm themselves, I’d support something in the neighbourhood of status quo prohibition.

I have a strong suspicion that only a small fraction of the users of marijuana are detected and prosecuted for their use. That is to say, I view legalization as a bogus issue. But the purported harmlessness of marijuana allows libertarians to replay the pro-abortion theme: control over one’s body. However, WW (unlike most libertarians who write about drug use) seems willing to concede that the use of marijuana ought to be made illegal if it would “egregiously harm” the user. This suggests that control over one’s body is not sacrosanct.

But what is the deeper principle that determines where and when one has control over one’s body? I find no clue in WW’s article. There is no “moral there” there. Being pro-abortion, anti-death penalty, pro-marijuana, and pro-same-sex marriage are attitudes, the possession of which marks one as “liberal” and “open-minded.” But bottomless.

And so on:

Same-sex marriage. I’m so pro, I almost wish I were gay so I could have one. If compelling evidence were unearthed that showed that widespread same-sex marriage really would precipitate the unraveling of the traditional family and subsequently the stability of society and the ruin of us all, I suppose I’d settle for the right of same-sex couples to shack up.

“Compelling evidence” about the effects of same-sex “marriage” on society can be had only by the widespread legalization of same-sex “marriage” over a long period, by which time it would be impossible to undo the damage caused by same-sex “marriage.” Would it not be better to exercise one’s moral judgment about the effects of state action before that action is taken?

In the case of same-sex “marriage” the judgment goes like this: Marriage, as the union of a man and a woman, is a social-religious convention, which (until modern times) had a legitimacy and standing that did not depend on state action. State involvement in marriage — as in other social arrangements — undermines its significance as a deep and socially beneficial commitment. The undermining process began in earnest with state action that eased divorce. Widespread governmental recognition of same-sex “marriage” would accelerate the undermining process. The state would effectively convert marriage from a social-religious commitment to a licensed arrangement devoid of social-religious meaning. This would reinforce the trend toward cohabitation, with all that it implies: convenience rather than commitment, greater ease of breakup, temporary couplings where one partner (usually the man) has no stake in the proper upbringing of  the other partner’s children, psychologically and (all-too-often) physically damaged children who are more prone than their “traditional” counterparts to economically unproductive and socially destructive behaviors.

Why not think things through instead making a show of demanding “evidence” that can be obtained only when it is too late to do any good? Well, the answer to that question is obvious: WW wants same-sex “marriage” — the evidence be damned.


Inheritance tax. I don’t have an especially strong opinion about this, other than that the “death tax” tends not to be very efficient and that large bequests aren’t an especially important source of inequality or the reproduction of class. So, I guess I’d need to learn that inheritance taxes don’t create a lot of wasteful, evasive resource shuffling, and do significantly contribute to class mobility if I were to develop a more favourable opinion of them.

That is about as clueless as it gets. Where is the right to do with one’s property as one likes, as long as the doing is not harmful to others? What a strange oversight by WW,  given his commitment to the control of one’s own body. If a person cannot control the legitimate produce of his bodily labors, he lacks effective control of his body.

If consequences were all, as they seem to be for WW, the ability to leave an inheritance is an incentive to do productive things, either directly or by making loans and investments that enable others to do productive things. For what earthly reason would anyone want to blunt or cancel that incentive? Out of a sense of “fairness”? What gives the likes of WW and Barack Obama the ability to reach into the minds and souls of millions of Americans and judge their relative worthiness to make and receive bequests? The inheritance tax is an exercise in social engineering that any self-respecting libertarian ought to reject categorically, not provisionally, as WW does.

WW often posts sensible things at his various outlets. But “Empiricism in politics” is a sign that WW should take a break from punditry, as he has said he might. On the basis of “Empiricism,” I would characterize WW as a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He pays lip-service — but nothing more — to the value of social traditions. He stands ready to jettison them at the drop of a statistic. As I have said, he is far from the sole possessor of that trait. I single him out here because “Empiricism” is an exemplar of utilitarian amorality.

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Related reading: Jay W. Richards, “Should Libertarians Be Conservatives?: The Tough Cases of Abortion and Marriage

Related posts (with many more linked therein):
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Crime, Explained
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
Is There Such a Thing as Society
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Enough of “Social Welfare”
The Case of the Purblind Economist
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Substantive Due Process and the Limits of Privacy
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
What Is Justice?
Myopic Moaning about the War on Drugs
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Cato, the Kochs, and a Fluke
Why Conservatism Works
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather