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.

Feser offers as an example the call to decriminalize drug use.  Based on Catholic natural law, “there can be no such thing as a right to do something contrary to our natural end.”  There are objections one can make: one must be free in action if virtue is ever to be achieved; while drug use or alcohol use can be abused, this does not mean we have no right to use such substances.  So, we can drink without having a busybody look over our shoulder:

But a natural right to drink oneself into a stupor as such is something we cannot have.

Moving closer to the devilish details:

Three things would seem to follow from this.  The first is that the only freedom of action we can have an absolute natural right to is whatever level of freedom is required for us to be able to make truly voluntary moral choices and thus develop genuinely virtuous character. 

It all depends on who polices the line.  A prison cell or the confession booth?

The second is that this would seem to entail that to some significant degree, determining the specific amount of freedom we ought to have from outside interference with our moral choices must be a matter of prudential judgment and contingent circumstances rather than a clear-cut appeal to self-ownership rights. 

It all depends on who makes that prudential judgement and in what matter that judgement is enforced.

The third is that this is bound to entail that it is at least in principle legitimate for government to outlaw actions that are, from the point of view of natural law, intrinsically immoral, such as prostitution, the sale of illicit drugs and pornography, and so forth.

Yuk.  When government does the outlawing, prison follows.  I see no place for a government prison at the end of the road of my own personal behavior that conflicts with my own natural ends or purposes, actions that I inflict upon myself or other voluntary adult participants.

I have often written of libertarians who don’t take into account the reality that humans are human.  Feser seems to not take into account the entirety of the negative consequences that come with prison for non-violent offenses.

This is not a place for government action; it is a place for family, extended family, social organizations, and most importantly Christian churches.  I can rule out government action because with government action the punishment is worse than the crime.

Feser moves from “in principle” to in reality:

…it is hard to see how anyone whose political philosophy is based on a Catholic conception of natural law could consistently fail to endorse some such laws.

Those libertarians who hold a strict line to laws regarding violations of physical person and physical property have a strong point: once these lines are crossed, all manners of mischief are possible to the state.  The burden of proof is on those who wish to cross these lines, and, frankly, the trial has already been held and the defendant is found guilty.

Feser defends the state by citing the Bible passages turned to for such defenses: Jesus offering to give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and the infamous chapter in Romans regarding submitting to authorities.

The Bible is much more complicated than most Christians give it credit for.  For every passage Feser can cite, there are several that offer the contrary.  God established judges, not kings; when the Israelites asked for a king, a disappointed God warned them of the consequences, eventually giving them their desire.  Gerard Casey has done an exemplary job of offering a broader view on both the chapter in Romans and the broader teaching in the Bible on this topic.  Picking one or two verses as definitive on almost any Biblical topic is a foolhardy game.

In any event, such views of taxation and state authority are not merely expressed in the New Testament; they are more or less universal in the Catholic natural law tradition, which regards the state both as institution as natural as the family itself and as an essential part of the social order.

Far from being morally illegitimate, the state is, from the point of view of traditional Catholic natural law theory, morally required.

Feser confuses government and governance with the state; he takes traditional Catholic natural law theory to support the state, yet there was no such thing as a “state” in the environment from which we draw traditional Catholic natural law. 

The very separate and overlapping roles played by Church and king precluded any possibility of a state; relationships were governed by an overall moral climate of the Church and the individual oaths offered by, between, and amongst kings, lords, nobles, free individuals, and serfs.

Feser dismisses any idea of private governance institutions, even not desiring to lean on private charity – which is more in line with a Catholic natural law tradition than is the state. 

This is what confuses me about Feser: why does he automatically go to a state?  Why, when none was present in the time Catholic natural law was developed?  Why not go to family, extended family, social organizations, countless other intermediating institutions, and the church – all present at the time when Catholic natural law was developed?

Far from being morally illegitimate, the state is, from the point of view of traditional Catholic natural law theory, morally required.  One reason for this is that that tradition has always forbidden the private enforcement of justice, in part for reasons that parallel those motivating the Catholic rejection of private judgment in matters of doctrine. 

Yet there was no state in the time when Catholic natural law theory was developed; there was no individual or institution with a monopoly over law, adjudication and punishment.  There was one moral arbiter – the Church – and hundreds of secular rulers – the kings, lords, and nobles, each under the moral authority of the Church.

Individuals – and, we might add, profit-seeking private protection and arbitration firms too – are too prone to bias in their own favor, and too limited in their understanding of what the natural law requires in the way of binding precepts and punishments for infringement.

All the more dangerous when one calls for a state – a monopoly provider of law, adjudication and punishment.  Feser points out the speck of sawdust in the eye of private solutions while ignoring the plank in the eye of the state.

It was Feser who stated “we have to look to common sense, experience, history, current circumstances, and whatever economics and the other social sciences can tell us in order to decide upon concrete policy.”  Look to all of these, and tell me why I should place the state – where the worst get on top – in authority of non-violent acts.

Feser points to the natural resources of the earth; these are given by God for the benefit of all.  He does not suggest that everyone should have an equal share; he does suggest that everyone should have access:

…those who do own property commit an injustice if they collectively use their property in a way that makes it impossible or extremely difficult for those without property even to maintain themselves in existence…

But how will such things be determined?  Who defines “existence”?  Who should determine conditions for receiving such access or support?

…such as by refusing to pay, out of that portion of their wealth that derives from their use of the earth’s natural resources, the taxes necessary to provide the state with what it needs to defend the rights of those who cannot defend themselves.

What rights?  Food – hamburger or steak?  Clothing – JC Penney or Armani?  Housing – tenement or beachfront?  Transportation – city bus or Mercedes?  Education – three Rs or Ivy League?  Employment – janitor or CEO?  Who will decide?  Who will influence the deciders?  Who will keep this in check?

Look, it was Feser who said “we have to look to common sense, experience, history, current circumstances, and whatever economics and the other social sciences can tell us in order to decide upon concrete policy.”  It wasn’t me.  Well, yes it was also me, but it was Feser.  What do these things tell us about the state’s involvement on any topic?  Might this not point to an inherent dysfunction in a thing called the state?

Individuals do indeed have very strong property rights according to the natural law tradition, but those rights are not and cannot be absolute. 

I have seen this in history – as mentioned, regarding destroying property and usury; very strong, but not absolute, property rights.

If a starving man stranded in the woods has no way to survive other than to break into my cabin and take some of my food, he has a natural right to do so. 

Should the state pass such a law giving starving people such rights, count the hundreds of thousands of newly starving people breaking into cabins in the forest.

And then there is the “just wage”:

It only entails that society be set up in such a way that everyone be able to support himself…

According to Pope Leo XIII’s classic formulation of the doctrine in Rerum Novarum, although a wage freely consented to is in the normal case just, such consent is not by itself sufficient for justice; it ought also to be possible in the ordinary case for a person to support himself and his family with his wages.

How large a family?  Who is to decide the meaning of “support”?  What if a job cannot be found at this just wage?  Who will be compelled to provide it?  By what means will his provision be secured?  These questions cannot be answered, and Feser seems to acknowledge this.  However, this is somewhat irrelevant, as “the just wage doctrine is a matter of binding moral teaching, not prudential judgment.”  Hence, the concept cannot be denied to one who adheres to Catholic natural law theory.

Fair enough, but the questions remain.  Shall the state mandate a minimum wage, we know that this will reduce employment for the most needy in society; we know that it will reduce opportunity for gaining the experience necessary to climb up the hierarchy of wages and title.  We know these things.

There is no justification for holding that absolutely every governmental action where wage rates are concerned amounts to a rights violation.

Tell that to the guy who didn’t get a job because the government action on wage rates priced him out of a job.  Because this is certain to happen.

Feser again offers an extreme example – the type instructive for exploring philosophical concepts but not drawing final conclusions: a single employer own all of the land of a large territory; it also happens to be a territory from which emigration is not very possible (due to, presumably, natural features).  Is it just that this employer refuses to hire the individual, or refuses to pay a wage sufficient for his survival?

One could ask, just as easily, is it just for the customers of this employer to refuse him a price for his product sufficient to pay the potential employee a just (however you define that term) wage?  And then is it just for the employers of these consumers to refuse them a wage that allows them to pay the higher price to the first employer?  You see where this road leads….

Look, I am not saying that Feser is wrong about just wage (or any portion of his narrowed definition of social justice) when viewed through a natural law lens; I have also asked if we can expect to find liberty on a strict application of the non-aggression principle.  What I am suggesting is that the cures of state-mandated this or state-enforced that or monopolized legislation and adjudication, cause violations in natural law that are far greater than the violations for which Feser complains.  Let’s find another solution.

The market cannot guarantee a “just wage” (whatever that is), just as the market cannot guarantee two chickens in every pot.  The problem is, there has yet to be any organizing system better capable of efficiently delivering to the largest number of people the greatest number of goods necessary for a human to reach his ends than the market.  We don’t live in heaven…yet.

Feser summarizes his views: if natural law tradition is correct, human beings have various capacities for certain objective ends; the realization of these ends constitute a “good” for mankind”; natural rights are derived from the natural law, ensuring man’s ability the means by which to achieve these ends:

It follows that anything which tends to frustrate our ability to fulfill those obligations and realize those ends violates our rights and amounts to an injustice.

If that frustration has at its root its legal code, its cultural institutions, or the tenor of its public life, then there is social injustice. 

The duty of remedying such injustices rests, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, primarily with individuals, families, and private associations.  But the natural law also calls forth the state as an authority whose duty it is to deal with those injustices which cannot effectively be remedied in this way.

What society is missing is its Christian morality.  It is not the state that will repair this – why would the state do this, as the loss of this morality only increases the demand for the state to act?  It is the Church (and, in our time, the church) that must act to repair this.  Feser should look to the church for solution, not the state.

Good laws do not come from corrupt people and today society follows corrupt people.  Good laws come from good people, but with good people good laws are unnecessary.

So long as every worker has a reasonable chance of being able to support himself and his family, and so long as some means of emergency assistance is available to those who are unable to support themselves, inequalities of wealth of any size are in principle consistent with it.

The freer the economy, the more “reasonable” will be the chance for a worker to support his family.  As to emergency assistance, again…the church, social organization, benevolent unions – all exist, all function, all do a better job of ensuring that support goes to the people deserving of support.

Moreover, the Catholic natural law conception of social justice is not entirely, and perhaps not even primarily, concerned with matters of economics.  Issues of broader moral concern – abortion, euthanasia, cloning, same-sex marriage, pornography, and divorce being some of the most obvious examples – are, in modern capitalist societies, arguably of far greater import.

I will not conflate abortion with the other items on the list; abortion is murder, and it is murder under any definition of murder one care to apply.  As to the rest, I can in no way find benefit in the idea of laws and punishment for violations of these.


Where is the Church (or church)?  This entire discussion comes down to this simple question.  It worked during the time when Catholic natural law theory was developed.  It is not clear to me why Feser doesn’t apply that lesson here.

I say again, it was Feser who said “we have to look to common sense, experience, history, current circumstances, and whatever economics and the other social sciences can tell us in order to decide upon concrete policy.”  History has shown us the way.  These matters were subject to the Church.

Nowhere does Jesus call for Roman legislation in order to bring about such justice; instead he summarized the commandments, in Matthew 22:

35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, 36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?  37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  38 This is the first and great commandment.  39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Love is a duty and love is found in the doing; we are to love the Lord and we are to love our neighbor.  There is no call for Roman soldiers to adjudicate and punish those who do not love; that is in God’s hands.  It is in the Church’s hands to properly teach love.

Because only when taken voluntarily will our actions be meaningful; only when taken voluntarily does our purpose have value; only when taken voluntarily will we find our way to liberty.

Feser is taking the easy way out here.  There is no just society at the end of his rainbow.  I will repeat something I offered in my earlier post on his views of self-ownership: legislation is a lazy society’s way (and especially a lazy Christian’s way) to get out of doing the hard work.

Christians have to do the hard work.  This means Christian leaders have to lead.  This could very well mean a reduction in the flock (but those who depart were never really part of the true flock in any case), but it is the only way forward toward a just society – and a society that moves toward liberty.


  1. "no one at all owns either himself or anyone else" - Feser

    Jeez. And he says Rothbard's theory of rights was indeterminate? This third alternative of Feser's is just a sleight of hand, or as Owen Benjamin would say, pure wizardry - wizardry attempting to justify aggression, and poorly in my view.

    "rights that we require in order to fulfill those obligations and realize that [natural] end [or purpose]." - Feser

    What if my ends compete with those of another? Do we both have a right to that end? What if he obtains it, and this precludes me from doing the same? Have my rights been violated? This is a slippery 'indeterminate' slope especially when the state gets involved.

    "But a natural right to drink oneself into a stupor as such is something we cannot have" - Feser

    Okay but who has the 'right' to intervene in this process? The drunk may have violated his own rights, but who else's have been? Who has justification to punish this behavior?

    "Feser confuses government and governance with the state" - BM

    Confuses or intentionally equivocates? This guy is a scholar of Catholic history. He should know that "there was no such thing as a “state” in the environment from which we draw traditional Catholic natural law." He does know, because he, apart from being a Catholic, was also once supposedly a libertarian - though not a complete one.

    And yet he continues to advocate the state and from one of its
    (if not its only) foundational enemies, the Christian natural law, and he does so as if they were always intrinsically, morally and historically linked. This guy is a wolf in sheep's clothing, and that's the worst sort of sheep or wolf. My opinion of Feser continues to sour and sour the more I consider what he is trying to do: turn liberty and Christian morality on its head.

    I consider both to be evil.

    I'd like to see Feser try and take Hoppe's challenge and try deriving anything you could call a 'state' from the 10 commandments.

    "Far from being morally illegitimate, the state is, from the point of view of traditional Catholic natural law theory, morally required" - Feser

    Here's a response from someone much wiser than Feser:

    "Saruman," I said, "I have heard speeches of this kind
    before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from
    Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you
    brought me so far only to weary my ears." - Gandalf, the Fellowship of the Ring - J.R.R. Tolkien

    Nobody could have dismantled Feser's justification for the state better than you. Hell of a job man.

    1. Thanks, ATL. I think your point about someone who is so knowledgeable about Natural Law, the Church, etc., coming to such a conclusion is valid; it is tremendously difficult to understand how he chooses the state over every other possible - and more "natural law" consistent - governance institutions.

    2. "This is what confuses me about Feser: why does he automatically go to a state?"

      Clearly, he worships Hegel's god more fervently than Christ, to whom he is merely paying lip service. Your confusion is that you have missed the sleight-of-hand. You grant him the benefit of assuming his position on religion, that he is true to the one he professes, that he believes in the one he explicitly invokes. It is misdirection. The truth is, his argument belies his belief in the faith he professes and exposes his true fealty. Hegel said: "The State is God, walking the earth," and that is the one in which Feser actually believes. Feser's problem is not that he wishes to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar, but that he has turned the parable on its head. Instead of questioning what rightly belongs to Caesar, (and what are supposedly the things which are God's) Feser is standing on the implicit argument that everything belongs to Caesar, who has the authority to dispose of those he rules, not God. This is the opposite of what Jesus is implying. Why do Christians wonder that their Church is shrinking, when their actions reveal their true beliefs are not the ones they profess with their mouths and pens?

      The bigger problem is that both you and Feser are rooting your ethical and political arguments in a non-entity: the non-initiation of force. This is a concept defined in terms of what it is not. "Non-initiation of force" is not a thing which exists; it is the absence of a thing. What's funny is that Rand embraced this position as a central pillar of her ethics, despite the fact that doing so (defining things in terms of what they are not) is the cardinal sin of the philosophy she propounded. Where is the existing entity, the positive concept around which to build an ethical and political position?

      Try this: Human beings have three modes by which they may associate: through manipulation and deceit, through coercion and force, or through reasoned, consensual, connection. "Governance," which most theorists fail to define adequately, is the set of rules, traditions, understandings, etc. about how the people of a society are to conduct their associations. It is governance which defines a society and distinguishes one from another. Feser's sleight of hand involves arguments that are built on the form: "Nobody has the right to pornography. Nobody has the right to commit suicide," etc. You keep tiptoe-ing up to the proper counter argument and then going back into Feser's wallow to argue with him there. Stick to your guns and argue over what actually exists, not non-concepts, which do not. Feser's argument about rights is misdirection. He is actually asserting, without offering any reason or evidence, that there exists an authority, possessed by some human beings, to violate the consensual connections of other human beings to override the value judgments made by those others, replacing or overriding of consent and conscience of those others with the authority's value judgments. Feser is hiding his real unsupportable and unsupported argument behind a misdirection. Keep confronting him there. His position won't confuse you, if you identify the actual argument he is making.

    3. Montecristo

      “Clearly, he worships Hegel's god more fervently than Christ, to whom he is merely paying lip service.”

      Have you read enough of Feser to come to this conclusion? I am hesitant to come to such conclusions based on a tiny subset of anyone’s writing when much of the writing runs contrary to this. It has been pointed out to me in the past that this, perhaps, is one of my weaknesses.

      “The bigger problem is that both you and Feser are rooting your ethical and political arguments in a non-entity: the non-initiation of force.”

      You see? Here is, exactly, an example that demonstrates the judiciousness of my approach. I have written countless words on this topic – pretty much exactly the opposite of this less-than-informed conclusion that you draw.

      “Try this: Human beings have three modes by which they may associate: through manipulation and deceit, through coercion and force, or through reasoned, consensual, connection.”

      See? Here is another example – you have done well to demonstrate my point. I have walked through door number three long ago.

      Perhaps start here:

      Start reading at any point that tickles your fancy. The posts are in order, demonstrating the evolution of my thinking.

    4. Thanks, I'll go check out the link.

      I can answer one of your questions immediately though. I have not read Feser. I have, on the other hand, read enough of what you write to appreciate that you take apart what you read pretty thoroughly. When you write:

      "This is what confuses me about Feser: why does he automatically go to a state?"

      I am familiar enough with your writings to have confidence that you have identified something real in Feser's approach, his fundamental premises. Feser reaches for the State automatically? That's telling. There is definitely something in many people's fundamental premises which causes them to reach reflexively for the State. Also, what you cite of his arguments, this ground upon which he builds his case, also supports your observation. When you construct an argument along the lines of identifying those things people have no inherent right to do, it logically implies that your ethics is founded upon the presumption of an authority to forbid and punish, from whom permission must be asked. In other words, permission is required first. From whom? God? No, Feser isn't talking about the state of souls and conscience, according to what you've written; he's talking about human authority, people who know what's best for others. You're pointing out that he's making an argument for the State, for authority. If he really believed that "faith is the path to salvation," he would be encouraging people to develop their own consciences, pray, meditate, consult with others who have exhibited some wisdom. The appeal to the State, to manipulation and coercion, is a confession: a confession that faith and/or reason are not enough, that people must be tricked and manipulated or else cowed and intimidated for good to prevail. Persuasion doesn't work. Inspiration doesn't work. Consent doesn't work. An argument for the State is not the argument that Caesar needs God, as you were making; it is the implied (and blasphemous, if you're a believer) converse idea that God needs Caesar. This is good Catholicism? It's not what I was taught in the Catholic school I attended. You yourself claim confusion over Feser's argument. What is the source? I would suggest to you that it is the perception of the contradiction. If Feser's philosophy is in error then there is a contradiction in there somewhere. I think you've offered the reader plenty of evidence about its nature.

    5. Montecristo, your points about Feser and his arguments are all reasonable; perhaps I am giving him too much benefit of the doubt.

    6. I think the human problem in philosophy is that we unfortunately have an evolutionary animal past. It is the animals who live by instinctual coercion and deception. Human beings share in that animal nature. Coercion and manipulation "work" after a fashion. They produce results, especially if we are ruthless or not very connected to our capacity for empathy. On the other hand, reason requires that we use "connection" if we are to thrive as human beings. Our human nature is one of discernment and empathy. Our best means of survival is connected production. Our problem is that we are creatures of mixed premises. Where is it that we learn to equate love and authority? In our families of origin. Our social and political environments are emergent phenomena. They arise out of our social interactions, which are the product of the internal world-views and "philosophy" of individuals. I don't think the problems can be addressed from the top down at all, but unfortunately, due to the perceptions we have each internalized by growing up in the households and in communities of "fallen" "mixed premises" individuals, coercion and manipulation appeal to us as viable and even necessary. Reason and curiosity (love) often become afterthoughts in our internalized way of interacting with other people.

      I'm wondering if you have ever read Lloyd de Mause? He wrote an interesting book titled "The Origins of War in Child Abuse." It would be interesting to see what you think of the work.

    7. I think the human problem in philosophy is that we unfortunately are fallen beings. We sin. I think all of the philosophizing in the world will not overcome this; what will overcome it is a recognition of sin and an understanding of the consequences of sin - in this world, but also in the next.

      There is no "reason" that will overcome this without recognizing this nature in man and without living with the knowledge of the consequences.

      Every other philosophy is man-made, allowing for man-manipulation. We are all puppets being played if we do not have this foundation underlying our philosophy.

      It is a game we will lose. We have the evidence of the last 250 years - if not 500 years - as proof.

  2. Dear Bionic,

    I very much enjoyed reading this post.

    Feser’s lack of understanding of economic law is glaringly obvious, and has led him, at least in some areas, to what I term “magical thinking,” or, in your own words, “there is no just society at the end of his rainbow.” In his defense, it’s a common failing.

    His remarks about the man stranded in the woods having the right to break in to another’s property and take food has been similarly addressed by Walter Block where Block says the stranded man has no such right, i.e. “If the owner of the cabin in the woods sets up a booby trap, such that when someone forces his way into his property he gets a face full of buckshot, would he be guilty of a law violation? When put in this way, the answer is clear. The owner . . . is in the right, and the trespasser in the wrong. If force is used to protect property rights, even deadly force, the owner is not guilty of violation of any licit law.”

    I again would like to recommend, if you haven’t read them already, Edith Pargeter’s novels featuring Brother Cadfael, set in 13th Century England and Wales. Her description of life in medieval times is well researched and presented. From Wikipedia: Her Cadfael novels show great appreciation for the ideals of medieval Catholic Christianity. . .”

    I promise not to mention Edith Pargeter again. Peg

    1. Peg, I am not comfortable - either as a libertarian or otherwise - with using deadly force in a situation where life is not threatened. I can understand deadly force in a situation of a break-in when people were in the house; it stretches everything I understand about the value of human life to suggest it in the case you describe.

      As to the novels...I will look into these.

    2. Addendum: After reading my own recent comment, I wish to say that I think anyone who seriously harms a young child should be exiled to a quite unpleasant environment. Peg

    3. Not sure how my previous post was missed, but it gives the above addendum more clarity. This: I understand your point, and agree that “shooting the child for stealing an apple” would be egregiously immoral, and I have no doubt the shooter would be shunned, excoriated, excluded from his tribe, etc. Nevertheless, the owner would still have been in the right for defending his property.

      Instead of a child, suppose ten men drive a truck into my apple orchard and take all my apples? May they then be shot? Yes, certainly, because such theft could very well have negative consequences to the livelihood of the owner’s own family.

      In Feser’s example of the cabin in the woods, why assume there is no threat to life? With the information given, we can’t know that. What if there is a sleeping/sick/drugged/gagged/injured/incapacitated, or impaired for any other reason, person inside the cabin who doesn’t know why someone is trying to break in? What if the owner is also starving in the woods and trying to make his way to his cabin but the thief arrives first? Or if the owner is carrying his starving child toward the cabin to the warmth and sustenance that is rightfully his?

      Trying to determine unintended consequences is why we study a discipline called “economics.”

      Either rights in property exist, or they don’t. We can’t have it both ways.

      Nothing is ever simple. Peg

    4. Peg, I did not assume anything more in Feser’s example because he said nothing more. A hungry man has a right to break into a cabin to steal a sandwich; this is what Feser wrote. And I replied that if ever such a law was passed, watch what all of the newly “hungry” men start doing. I would not pass such a law as Feser seems to suggest; at the same time, I recognize that a truly starving man must be treated as something other than a murderer if all that stands between his life and death is a window.

      Next, I replied to what you offered from Block. In this, you did not suggest that there were any further facts to consider. There is no moral or ethical scale on which I can equate taking a life in exchange for someone breaking into an unoccupied cabin for the purpose of stealing a sandwich – which was the context of the discussion. To equate a right in property always and everywhere with the right to life is immoral; any society that acts in this manner is a doomed society.

      Finally, I am not talking about ten armed men stealing all apples from an orchard. To go back to the root of this discussion, it is claimed by at least one libertarian that the aggrieved property owner can choose any punishment that he wishes against the individual who aggressed. Please note – the issue was punishment. Even with this, if a farmer sees a child pick an apple and shoots him to defend his property, any community that accepts this as appropriate is doomed. Libertarian freedom will not be the result.

      Ultimately, a healthy community will have customs and traditions that outline appropriate behavior in the myriad nuanced circumstances. Without generally accepted customs and traditions, there is no possibility of a libertarian society. Objective law is necessary for liberty; it isn’t sufficient.

    5. Per your quote, Feser didn’t say the cabin was unoccupied. But even assuming it was unoccupied, the owner’s property must remain inviolable. By that I don’t mean the starving man shouldn’t take the sandwich. Indeed, I would do so myself given the possibility of death. But I at least should be prepared to face the consequences for theft. This is where custom and tradition enters, and correctly so, because only custom and tradition can determine how competing ends should be prioritized, and consequently, what punishment is to be meted out for violations.

      There really is no conflict between “property” and “life.”

      “Private property rights do not conflict with human rights. They are human rights. Private property rights are the rights of humans to use specified goods and to exchange them. Any restraint on private property rights shifts the balance of power from impersonal attributes toward personal attributes and toward behavior that political authorities approve. That is a fundamental reason for preference of a system of strong private property rights: private property rights protect individual liberty.” – Armen A. Alchian

      Property must be absolute, else it has no definition. Peg

    6. The cabin in the woods scenario is a perfect example of the importance of custom in a social order of private property. What use of someone else's property can be reasonably assumed to be consensual or acceptable in an emergency when the owner is not there to be asked? There's no objective solution for this. Custom or the common habits of place are necessary to answer this question.

      Maybe the custom is that the supplies you leave in your cabin can be used by someone in a life or death emergency. That way if an owner came out to his cabin and saw that someone else who was injured severely had been living there using up all his resources, the owner would be prepared with enough supplies to either stay a few days while help arrived or to make the trek back out to get help.

      Conversely, if the custom was 'everybody fend for themselves', the owner may not have prepared additional supplies on the trek out to the cabin, and having arrived to find his supplies gone in a similar fashion to the above, may employ his right to shoot the thief who has violated his property and endangered his own life in so doing.

    7. "Property must be absolute, else it has no definition. Peg"

      "Absolute" and "property" also require definition, else they have no meaning.

      But separately: A child takes a candy bar and walks out of the store. The shopkeeper chases him down the street and shoots him in the back - while the child is running away.

      One can think of many contributing factors to attempt to justify his action; but in the end, he shot a child in the back for taking a one dollar candy bar.

      Property is absolute (again, requiring many further clarifying definitions); but we are speaking of the defense of property or the punishment for violating another's property - WHEN NO ONE'S LIFE IS IN DANGER.

      I cannot make sense of this in any libertarian world, and absolutely not in any moral world. It certainly is a custom that will result in a destruction of society.

      We already have evidence of this - just think of inner city gangs; this is the code that they live by.

    8. I can’t think of any contributing factors to justify the killing a child for the theft of a candy bar. Surely punishment must be proportionate to the crime, as custom and tradition would no doubt stipulate. Does anyone seriously advocate such an extreme punishment for something as trivial as the theft of a candy bar, particularly if the thief is a child (your unknown libertarian notwithstanding).

      Nevertheless, it’s not OK to steal a candy bar, or anything else, and such theft must be acknowledged as theft, no matter the triviality of the stolen item. Nor, for that matter, the thief’s own compelling reasons (starvation) for believing he’s entitled to someone else’s property.

      Bionic says: “Property is absolute (again, requiring many further clarifying definitions); but we are speaking of the defense of property or the punishment for violating another's property - WHEN NO ONE'S LIFE IS IN DANGER.”

      This is smoke, even if written in caps. If I rob a bank, unarmed, and endanger no one’s life in doing so, do I get to walk out with my booty free and clear? Peg

    9. Those who have been here long enough know of whom I speak regarding the unknown libertarian. He is reasonably prominent.

      I agree, theft is never OK.

      I also went too far in including "defense" in my statement. But we aren't talking about robbing a bank; we are talking about an unoccupied cabin when the person setting up the booby trap has absolutely no idea the intention of the individual who broke in.

  3. Feser doesn't realize what he is doing but he is calling for the Social Gospel of the early 20th Century. That was run by New England Puritans. A big problem with that movement is that it became more and more secular. Walter Rauschenbusch was an early proponent, who was a pastor though a quite liberal one. The next generation of the movement saw Richard Ely who denied the faith and claimed that the State was God on Earth.

    What Feser is calling for is dangerous and destructive. It just supports all the central government building that occurred over the 20th century.

    Feser's first clue that he was crossing the line was disagreeing with Hayek on Social Justice. Social Justice by definition is Anti Justice. It constitutes taking from some to give to others.

    Somehow he links the ideas of Christian charity and generosity to Social Justice. That way it is natural to bring in the actions of the State. I particularly disliked the following quotes.

    "Far from being morally illegitimate, the state is, from the point of view of traditional Catholic natural law theory, morally required. One reason for this is that that tradition has always forbidden the private enforcement of justice, in part for reasons that parallel those motivating the Catholic rejection of private judgment in matters of doctrine. "

    In the Bible, you can easily find examples of private justice or at least public non-state justice both in Israel (Judges) and the church (1 Corinthians 6). The apostle Paul scolds severely the believers in Corinth from appealing to state or secular courts for justice.

    "Individuals – and, we might add, profit-seeking private protection and arbitration firms too – are too prone to bias in their own favor, and too limited in their understanding of what the natural law requires in the way of binding precepts and punishments for infringement."

    So only individuals and the private sector are biased and unaware of natural law. Such lazy thinking from someone who seemed to have some good ideas on philosophy and rights. Every human being and organization is biased. Leave it at that. Plus does natural law even proscribe punishments?

    "It follows that anything which tends to frustrate our ability to fulfill those obligations and realize those ends violates our rights and amounts to an injustice."

    The problem with this statement is that it allows person A to be punished for not doing something for person B solely becomes it somehow limits person B's ability to self-actualize. If there isn't a greater justification for tyranny and oppression I haven't heard it.

    It allows for person C to steal from person A to give to person B so that person B can somehow achieve his purpose in life. It does because it is impossible to objectively define what each individual's resources or opportunities should be. Everyone has a little different idea of what that is. In this scenario the worst part is that person C is empowered to decide what anybody needs. Person C will commit great atrocity extracting and redistributing resources to satisfy his subjective idea about what constitutes the "natural right" of everyone.

    His first mistake was disagreeing with Hayek. His second mistake would be not having a conversation with Bionic Mosquito.

    1. All very good, RMB. However, I must admit that your closing was your best point!


    2. Feaser's Catholicism, as his readers report it has smelled fishy to me but I didn't make the connection you did, at the time I read the essay here. Feser's reasoning from the idea that "Nobody has a right to do X" where "X" is anything which is not proper for Man according to his nature looks, on the surface, to be fairly Catholic, but you're right: it does fit better with Millenial Pietism.

      The problem with Feser's argument is that, when it comes to people injuring others, it is quite applicable for governance mechanisms to be invoked to protect the innocent third party, the victim. Feser seems to believe though, that some authority is entitled to go further than this, to interpose itself between the individual and his own conscience, and (presumably), God. I was reminded of this a few days ago when remembering a quote of Benjamin Franklin's: "Experience keeps a dear school but a fool will learn in no other." According to Genesis, Adam is to suffer the consequences of eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He is condemned to having to rely on his purloined capacity for reason for his survival. He must acquire his sustenance and values by reason and production, and when he fails at this, he will suffer the natural consequences, from which he is capable of learning. He is no longer entitled to a superabundant Garden of Eden without work, but must instead create whatever life he desires out of hard work and thought, and if his decisions are poor, he will reap the consequences of disregarding the Law of Identity.

      Feser has latched onto the rotten Millenialist Protestant idea that the only way one proves his own salvation is to "step in," and procure the salvation of other, lesser men, despite themselves. This would hold that there is some earthly authority which may intercede once that authority has judged that someone's suffering of consequences has gone "too far." Instead of allowing experience to possibly teach people, instead of allowing them to "hit bottom," and potentially turn themselves around, the Millenialist argument says that some human beings may rightfully intervene in that process that presumably, God decreed. Catholic teaching holds that the individual is responsible for his own conduct and cannot be "saved" against his will. Forbidding someone from vices does not necessarily convince them to see the true nature of what they are doing. In fact, it interferes with the process of making proper identifications and the consequent reformations.

    3. To be precise it is Post-Millenial Pietism, Post is an important part of the world view.

  4. I sent this cover letter today for the chief lobbyist for the five Catholic Bishops here in Indiana. What are the chances they will have the guts to hire me?:

    I am writing to apply for this position. I am currently a stay-at-home father, and I have little interest in returning to the work force, but I feel this job is a higher calling. It is important that our Church be a leader against, rather than a collaborator with, the forces that seek to push Christ to the side as a lovable mere philosopher, as opposed to being the Source of Truth that He is. In this vein, though I believe the Bishops have been pleased with the work of the current Executive Director, I believe most of the flock in Indiana are unaware of him. I have also tried to contact him, specifically regarding the Payday Loan bill last session, and I do not believe that should be the main thrust of Christ’s work in Caesar’s temple. Our Church teaches the important social tradition of Subsidiarity, but I believe the USCCB and the ICC have relegated it improperly to a role subordinate to Solidarity, rather than properly equal.

    I believe bold leadership, with humility, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide, especially through the entire Social Teaching and Tradition of our Church, is the key to help a Church in crisis. The ICC should be that, rather than lukewarm.

  5. I've long thought that Christian morality, expressed by Jesus as love your neighbor as yourself, is the very highest moral code of conduct that humans can ever aspire to live up to. I'll believe that as long as I exist. But I would never in my wildest dreams imagine that any of us have a right to impose that code of conduct on someone else. Only God has that right, and He declined to exercise that right when He gave us free will.

    Donald Trump is not God. Mitch McConnell is not God. Nancy Pelosi is not God (thank heaven). The nine Supreme Court justices are not God. No one in our government is God.

    Christians, of all people, should not be asking the government to impose a code of moral conduct on society. Someone like Edward Feser should know better.

    Wonderful article. Thank you for writing it.

    Steven H.