Thursday, January 31, 2019

Social Justice

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 conflict between natural law and libertarianism.  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 previous post on Feser’s work.  But in contrast to the possibilities of either a) I own me or b) someone else owns me, Feser offers a third alternative:

…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.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Revolution Devours its Children

Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children

-          Jacques Mallet du Pan

"Revolutions eat their children." This observation, by a journalist during the French Revolution, was only partly true. In reality, revolutions eat their parents.

-          Peter St. Onge

Both are true.  We are seeing the parents devoured, we will soon see the children devoured.  I offered a few days ago that Trump’s reelection is certain, assuming he runs again.  The left will out-looney themselves on the debate stage, and any semi-normal democrats will run screaming – voting for either Trump, a third party, or not at all.

A couple of days later, Tom Luongo offers: Democrats Begin Eating Themselves Prepping for 2020:

Ideological possession always ends in pogroms. When the leadership of the most powerful organization in the world is at stake nothing is off limits, especially for power-hungry Democrats.

This is why we’re now seeing a concerted effort to smear Bernie Sanders just after he announced his Presidential campaign for 2020. The Democrats blame him for splitting the party in 2016 which allowed Trump to win.

The response was predictable. The American left lost its collective mind in November 2016.

Your clue that things have reached that point is none other than everyone’s media darling, Marxist lunatic Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez.

Howard Schultz threatens that he will run for president in 2020; the thought is that he will run as an independent.  Democrats are worried that he will take votes from their candidate.  Trump plays this perfectly, challenging Schultz’ manhood via twitter:

Howard Schultz doesn’t have the “guts” to run for President! Watched him on @60Minutes last night and I agree with him that he is not the “smartest person.” Besides, America already has that! I only hope that Starbucks is still paying me their rent in Trump Tower!

Schultz will run; a real man cannot let such a challenge go unanswered.

Even Hillary is considering another run; the more the merrier – one big party.

"Clinton is telling people that she's not closing the doors to the idea of running in 2020," Zeleny said. "I'm told by three people that as recently as this week, she was telling people that look, given all this news from the indictments, particularly the Roger Stone indictment, she talked to several people, saying 'look, I'm not closing the doors to this.'"

Nothing more certain than a loser losing; Please!  Run, Hillary, run!

Now even Facebook, Google and Microsoft – the darlings of the left – are being devoured by none other than AOC:

Dear Mr. Nadella, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Pichai,

We are writing to you today in light of the important role that your companies play as we prepare to take comprehensive action on climate change. …we were deeply disappointed to see that your companies were high-level sponsors of a conference this month in Washington D.C., known as LibertyCon, that included a session denying established science on climate change.


We are more than a year away from the party nominations.  The left is going to consume itself.  It may happen much sooner than thought possible even a few short days ago.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Plato’s Cave

The standard one-line summary of the Enlightenment goes like this: Because religion is based on blind faith, the founders of modern Western thoughts sought to free science and philosophy from its irrational embrace, to reduce or eliminate its influence on public life, and to re-orient even private life toward improving this world rather than preparing for an illusory afterlife.

A long line, but a nice summary.  As Feser has demonstrated, however, the Christian religion does not rest on blind faith but on the metaphysical worldview that one can trace back to the Greeks.  It was not and is not a battle between science and religion, but instead a battle between two competing metaphysical worldviews.  Feser has demonstrated the emptiness of the modern worldview. 

From where was this modern worldview born?  Feser offers that some of the groundwork was inadvertently laid by medieval thinkers such as Ockham and by the Protestant Reformation, with some early modern thinkers less hostile to religion than others – trying, albeit in vain, to preserve some elements of it.  Ultimately, it took bloom in the Enlightenment.

It took centuries for this modern worldview to take hold, precisely because the worldview born in ancient Greece held sway for so long – and because that ancient worldview rested on what was obvious common sense.

Ultimately the costs of this modern philosophy are to be found in our morals – or lack of any foundation for any morality.  Feser notes that it is easy to point to National Socialism or communism, but even the liberal West cannot withstand criticism: in all cases, human beings are reduced to “congeries of mechanical forces” a “disgusting…dehumanizing…and utterly incoherent” vision.

If there is no such thing as a natural order (again in the classical realist sense) then there can be no basis for morality at all.

No need to offer the countless examples to prove the point.  As Feser offers, “the pathologies in question are in any event blindingly obvious to anyone sympathetic to the classical philosophical worldview” as described by Feser in this book.

Had you told a William Gladstone or even a John F. Kennedy that the liberalism of the future would be defined by abortion on demand and “same-sex marriage,” and that the avant-garde would be contemplating infanticide, bestiality, and necrophilia, they would have thought you mad.

Feser suggests that you cannot even attempt the reductio ad absurdum with a liberal, as he will merely thank you for the suggestion.  They are blind, like those in Plato’s Cave, thinking you mad for describing the world outside.

From an article in The Atlantic Monthly in 1948, by W.T. Stace – an empiricist and not in sympathy with the Aristotelian-Thomistic worldview: the turning point came when seventeenth century scientists turned their backs on “final causes,” an invention not only of Christiandom but reaching back to Socrates.

The conception of purpose was frowned upon….This, though silent and almost unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world.

Stace continues, offering that our picture is purposeless, senseless, and meaningless.  “Nature is nothing but matter in motion.”  And so goes man – purposeless, senseless, and meaningless.  “Everything is futile.”

If our moral rules do not proceed from something outside us in the nature of the universe – whether we say it is God or simply the universe itself – then they must be our own inventions.

We are left with our likes and dislikes, but we know how variable these are.


Feser offers that what we are left with is to return to first principles.  Given that we today have no foundation upon which to build a moral society – including the morality of non-aggression – this suggestion would seem to be one that libertarians take seriously when considering liberty as the objective.

But to consider “final causes,” one cannot at the same time say “anything peaceful.”  The two are incompatible.  I always struggled with that phrase – “anything peaceful.”  It seemed a right thing to believe as a libertarian, yet something told me it was dangerous to liberty.  It is clear to me now why this is so.

As I hope is clear by now, I do not suggest legislation and prison for “anything peaceful” acts.  Correction of these belongs to family, church, and society at large.  For this to come about, it seems theologians, pastors, priests, and philosophers have some work to do.  Most of these are currently failures at this task.


Feser’s final chapter is entitled “Aristotle’s Revenge.”  In it, he summarizes his takedown of the modernists.  To make a long story short, they cannot avoid final causes in their arguments, yet attempt to use these arguments to eliminate final causes from philosophy; their arguments only make sense when understood in Aristotelian terms…and, therefore, their arguments make no sense.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Four More Years

Assuming Trump runs again, declare him the winner today.  By the time the announced (and likely to announce) democratic candidates get done out-lefting each other and debating themselves off of the cliff of identity politics – bashing white, male, family, and church – they will convince any normal democratic voter remaining that their party has been taken over by loons.

They will then either vote for Trump or vote for a third party candidate or not vote at all.

Tom Woods and Lew Rockwell will be doing post-debate podcasts on the democratic primary debates.  If you thought the republicans were entertaining two years ago, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Friday, January 25, 2019


I read Feser's description of his journey in and out of Libertarianism. Sounds like his beliefs have quite a bit of overlap with yours BM. Sounds like he has thought pretty deeply about these issues too. Not sure I agree with him 100% but he raises some good points about the NAP not being enough.

You know, I wasn’t really looking to understand Feser’s views on libertarianism, and then RMB poked me right where it counts.  It is difficult to let stand “Sounds like his beliefs have quite a bit of overlap with yours BM.”  True or not, it must be addressed, such that nothing is left to the imagination of the ne’er-do-wells among us.

What do I mean by this?  Am I pointing to RMB as a ne’er-do-well?  Not at all; I stand in awe of his ability to so easily find my weak spot and prod me to action.  No, my concern regards those who might paint me with a Feserian brush where none is deserved.  So, call this post a proactive defense. 

Be warned, this is a long post.  Also, keep in mind that for me the idea of libertarianism is a philosophy that supports liberty – hence, perhaps, something more than the non-aggression principle is necessary.

As the term libertarianism can mean many things to many people, it is worth understanding what Feser means:

For me (and for at least many libertarians) libertarianism is merely a view about the proper bounds of state power, and not a general social, cultural, or moral philosophy.

Given this description, it seems that Feser’s move away from libertarian could mean his move toward the use of state power.  As I find myself in agreement with much of what he has written on the topic of natural law and morality – and in my case, at least, how these are supportive of liberty – it will be an unfortunate turn of events if at the end of Feser’s road one is to find the state.

He gives a hint of this with the following:

A libertarian could say, for example, that using cocaine for recreational purposes is morally wrong but should not be illegal.  And that is the sort of thing I would have said in my libertarian days.

I suspect the portion of the statement on which his view has changed is the “not be illegal” part, as I don’t believe Feser would now consider cocaine use morally right.  To reinforce this, Feser offers that while he was once committed to a view “in favor of private initiative and against government action.”

I have been committed to it ever since, even though I no longer take the latter component to the extremes a libertarian would.

A little “government action” is OK.

Nozick and Hayek were in any event the biggest influences on my thinking, with Rothbard a secondary influence.  Rand was never a big influence, though like most libertarians I had a general regard for her.

Feser begins with a history of his political-philosophical background and how he came to libertarianism; he would have at one time described himself as a libertarian-conservative (he would now describe himself as a “free-market conservative” or “limited government conservative”).  I will begin this examination only from the point of his rejecting libertarianism.

But immediately upon reaching this [libertarian] climax, the arguments started slowly to unravel.

At the core of his libertarian thinking was the idea of self-ownership.

In particular, I thought the conception of natural rights embodied in the thesis of self-ownership -- which I took to be independently plausible and which was the very heart of my own libertarianism -- fit in naturally with the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) natural law approach to ethics that had become my settled view by the early 2000s. 

I was dead wrong.

It should be kept in mind, it is the idea of self-ownership that he is rejecting; as his libertarianism is built on this foundation, he then rejects libertarianism.  However, it seems plausible to me that one can reject this particular foundation without rejecting the house built upon it; just as we have seen that many libertarians have as their foundation individualism, yet this foundation also proves rather indefensible if liberty is the objective.  Perhaps one just needs a stronger foundation.  This, after all, has been the project I have stumbled upon.

But I should be clear: the house I am after building is liberty, not libertarianism.  Libertarianism may not be sufficient for liberty, yet one cannot reject libertarianism without also rejecting liberty.  Let’s say libertarianism (as it is currently understood) is a necessary but insufficient foundation for liberty.

…we cannot plausibly be said to own ourselves in a substantive way if the right to self-ownership protects us only “from the skin inward” and says nothing about whether we may bring our powers to bear on the world. 

Two castaways on an island.  While you sleep, your mate builds a fence around you, claiming the remainder of the island for himself.  He has not touched you.  Now what?  I know some libertarians will say that the action of the mate is not allowed – not enough mixing of labor with land.  But who is to say “not enough”?  How much is enough?  On what basis? 

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Natural Rights and Morality

Can one have natural rights without a natural moral law?  The moderns certainly believe so; Feser begs to differ.

One will not find the idea of natural rights explicitly stated by Aristotle or Aquinas; however, later Scholastic thinkers developed this idea based on the earlier work.  Natural rights follow from Aristotelian formal and final causes:

If every man has, by virtue of having the same form or nature, the same ultimate natural end (God) and various subsidiary natural ends (those associated with natural capacities like reason, procreation, and so forth), then they have the same basic moral obligations under natural law.

While reading Feser, I continue to return to this idea of natural law – and, specifically, the reliance on natural law by many libertarians as a philosophical foundation.  Is it possible to take from natural law only the negative (do not interfere with my achieving my natural ends) without the positive (the moral obligations) derived from the same natural law?  Can one exist without the other?

The same natural law that blocks others from interfering with our natural ends also places obligations on us.  These are more than merely reciprocating regarding the prohibition of interfering with another (e.g. violating my natural right not the be murdered); natural law, as developed by Aristotle and Aquinas, places moral burdens on us – precluding us from actions that would otherwise not violate the non-aggression principle.

The child wants to enjoy the benefits of living under daddy’s roof but doesn’t want to live by daddy’s rules.  Is this workable?  Does such a relationship have any possibility of longevity?

Now, what becomes of natural rights if there are no formal or final causes, and thus no universal human nature nor any natural ends or purposes by reference to which rights get their point?

What do you aim at if there is no target?  This was the task of the moderns – Hobbes, Lock, Hume, Kant, etc. – as they believed they could aim without a target.  Feser examines these.

Hobbes understood this most clearly: without the target, everyone can do what he wants: murder, steal, and harm others as he wishes.  No one has a right to not be killed, stolen from, etc.  Morality would have to be invented by us in order to avoid the naturally resulting chaos.

Locke would have none of this; without final causes, he would rely on God’s ownership of us.  Therefore, we do not have any rights ourselves; God has all the rights and whatever rights we enjoy are derivative.  But without formal and final causes, there is still no target to aim at.

Take Locke’s theory of property: it leaves more questions than it provides answers.  Most basic: what counts as “mixing”?  How much mixing?  Why not build a small fence around your neighbor and thereafter claim all property outside of it?

One could appeal to divine revelation, but then this turns Locke’s theory into theology.  I have often answered “custom” or “tradition,” but without a target to aim at, custom and tradition can stray (and has strayed) far from any definition of “good” you can come up with.

To deny that there are any formal or final causes in the natural world is implicitly to deny that there is any objective standard of goodness in the world either.

The early moderns could toy with such ideas because they lived within a custom and tradition that was well-grounded in the “good” of Christian ethics.  Hence, the destructiveness of losing the target was not obvious.  But, it has been demonstrated that the target cannot sustain itself; we have seen the devolution over the last two centuries.

Where does this leave reason?  It is every man’s reason for itself: reason can tell us what to do to achieve our objectives, but what of the objectives?  Without ultimate values based on formal and final causes, what do we aim at?

Is the elimination of slavery good?  Why or why not?  The acceptance of divorce, homosexuality?  What if it is accepted to kill unwanted babies?  It already is accepted for the unborn child, why not the newborn?  Old and sick people; Jews, blacks, Muslims?  Nazis, communists, pro-choice activists?  Why…or why not?

Well, we just “know it.”  But consider how drastically different much of what we “know” today is from what we “knew” even a few decades ago – even a few years ago.  Were we wrong then?  Are we wrong today?  Is change the same as progress?  Can reason tell us when reason has no target to aim at?

Do we aim for the greatest happiness for the greatest number?  Good luck measuring or quantifying that one.  You can’t even say why anyone would care about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  On what basis is this better than the good of the many outweigh the good of the one?  What is “good”?

Why exactly should we believe that reason tells us to follow [Kant’s] Categorical Imperative – as opposed to being the “slave of the passions” (in Hume’s sense) or following our rational self-interest (as Hobbes says)?

Reason to what end?

The bottom line is that by abandoning formal and final causes, modern philosophy necessarily denied itself any objective basis for morality.

Including, it seems, the morality of the non-aggression principle.


Would you be more inclined rigorously to abide by policy X if you were truly convinced that God or nature unconditionally commands it, or if cooked up because it is “mutually advantageous” (even if you don’t see much advantage to  following it yourself just now)?

To ask this question is to answer it.


Feser has apparently walked a path through libertarianism and then moved on.  Someday it might be important to me to understand why, but not today.  That he has walked such a path does not discount for me the points he raises in this book.