, Edward Feser
Feser gave the Hayek Memorial Lecture at the Mises Institute’s Austrian Scholars Conference in 2005. In it, he touches of some points that will further shed light on his views of . Feser began to give up on libertarianism by 2004, so this lecture was given after this evolution in his views.
In this lecture, he focuses particularly on the social writing of Hayek and Rothbard:
My critique is an internal one, though, a friendly challenge to Austrian sympathizers from someone who shares their sympathy.
Throughout, he uses the term Austrian, but what he is discussing is some combination of Austrian economics and libertarianism as he discusses both economic and social / political theory. Feser’s focus is social justice, but not as the term is used in the broad sense today:
Both these thinkers rejected the very idea of social justice as incoherent – Hayek explicitly, Rothbard implicitly. I want to argue that they were wrong to do so, and wrong even though they were right to criticize the specifically socialist conceptions of social justice that were their main targets.
I do not intend to go through the details of these critiques – offering my critique of Feser’s critiques; this post is already much too long. Instead, I will look at his arguments for this narrowed version of social justice and alternatives to his views that these necessarily lead away from libertarianism.
As I have mentioned, the task for individuals who favor liberty – including the non-aggression principle – is to build this political philosophy on a solid foundation. In other words, don’t use the shortcomings (real or perceived) as reasons to run away; use these shortcomings as reasons to build a better political theory toward liberty.
To somewhat narrow the focus of Feser’s meaning of “social justice,” a few of his comments will be helpful:
…it simply isn’t true that all conceptions of social justice are concerned with equality, or with economic distribution fitting some pattern or other. In particular, the Catholic natural law conception does not have these concerns, as we will see.
He will later bring focus on this point.
…the very natural rights that support a free society and market economy themselves rest on an objective moral order, on natural law.
I am moving more and more toward this view; the devil is in the details, of course – like the detail of who or what has responsibility to uphold that objective moral order.
…the utilitarian tendency to reduce all value to individual subjective preferences…is flatly incompatible with the Catholic natural law conception of value. For example, it is, from a natural law point of view, just a straightforward objective moral fact that the availability of sound moral and religious instruction is of greater value to every single individual than is the availability of Coca Cola and Britney Spears albums.
It is also, from that point of view, just a straightforward objective moral fact that pornography and drugs, say, have no value whatsoever, whether or not anyone wants to pay for them.
He is not making the point (yet) that government ought to regulate such matters; he is offering that whatever the wisdom in calling for the government not to do so cannot rest on the concept of subjective value when viewed through a natural law lens.
The natural law theory associated with Aquinas and the Scholastic tradition in general is committed to the idea that human beings have a natural end or purpose and that their particular natural capacities (whether intellectual, procreative, or whatever) have natural ends or functions as well. These various natural ends determine the content of the moral law, including (for those Scholastic natural law thinkers who are also natural rights theorists) the rights we possess.
Feser is aiming at moral law that supports a human being’s natural ends and purposes. Again, the devil is in the details: do violations of these “moral laws” get you thrown in prison, or do violations of these “moral laws” get you into the confession booth? For me, the distinction is vital if one is truly speaking of a free society, as Feser does.
Again, the issue of self-ownership arises; for some background on his views (and mine) on this, I offer my But in contrast to the possibilities of either a) I own me or b) someone else owns me, Feser offers a third alternative: on Feser’s work.
…no one at all owns either himself or anyone else. To own oneself, after all, is just to have certain rights over oneself, and there are certainly philosophers who would deny that we have any rights, or at least any natural rights, at all.
Without first identifying the rights that come with ownership, one cannot speak of ownership. It is not difficult to identify situations of less-than-absolute property rights (in other words, conditional ownership) in many aspects of life – and not all such conditions are forced upon us by the state.
I recall a couple of such examples from the Middle Ages – and as I find the law during this period to be the closest extended period of libertarian law in history, I lean on it. For example, one was not allowed to destroy physical property that he owned. Another example regards usury; while the history here is a bit muddled, I think there are clear examples where such a practice was frowned upon.
The natural rights we have just are, and can only be, the rights that we require in order to fulfill those obligations and realize that [natural] end [or purpose].
The rights that I have determine the extent of the meaning of ownership. Thus, returning to the thought that if one is to build his libertarianism on natural law – from which our natural rights are derived – one might consider the entirety of the law and its implications. This may not lead to libertarianism as it is currently understood, but it just might lead to liberty. Again, those devilish details rear their heads.
Feser does use the term “self-ownership”; he has refined the definition such that he can then lean on the term:
Is this conception of natural rights consistent with a recognition of self-ownership? I think it probably is, for the Catholic natural law tradition is so insistent on the dignity and inviolability of the human person that it is plausible to hold that the bundle of rights that that tradition ascribes to individuals constitutes a kind of ownership.
However, the ownership is not absolute. For example, one has no right to commit suicide, as this interferes with the natural ends or purposes of a human life. It can be extended to other issues such as abortion, the care and feeding of one’s children, even adolescent disobedience (running away from home). Each of these come between a human being and his ability to fulfill his purpose.
Now we come to that devil to which I have often referred:
Quite obviously, this difference between conceptions of natural law is bound to imply differences in public policy.