Friday, January 27, 2006

Libertarian or Conservative?

When I was in high school I was something of a libertarian. Looking back on things now, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many adolescent boys are libertarians. Although I am still very attracted to the principles of liberty and personal autonomy that are the hallmarks of libertarianism, there are elements of it, or varieties of it, perhaps, that do not quite satisfy me now. To the extent that there are such things as intellectual heroes, Hadley Arkes is one of mine, and he has a fine contribution in today's installment of On the Square at the First Things blog site that deals with one element of the libertarian view that seems to me open to criticism: it is overly congenial to the hypothetical imperatives of a relativistic utilitarianism. It is worth quoting Arkes at length:
Still, what has not been fully appreciated by the votaries of federalism is the way in which this decision by the Court cannot be cabined in Oregon. The scheme offered to us in the name of federalism asks us to incorporate the view that assisted suicide is just another, tenable view about the proper ends of doctors and medicine. Justice Kennedy plants the premise when he remarks that the Attorney General had sought to bar a policy in Oregon merely “because it may be inconsistent with one reasonable understanding of medical practice.”

The aversion to self-killing or self-murder, the enduring concern about doctors using their powers to end life—all of that is simply diminished now as “one reasonable understanding of medical practice,” no more right or wrong than anything else. To incorporate that understanding at the top of the State, in the national government, is to do nothing less than to erode the conviction that has firmed up the laws for the protection of life at the center and the periphery in this country. If the assistance of suicide is regarded as just another “reasonable understanding of medical practice,” why should that view of things not begin to seep into parts of the federal establishment? Why should it not come to affect the understandings that prevail in military hospitals or in divisions of the National Institutes of Health?

To recall an older example, we might have lived for a while with a federalism that allowed slavery in some of the States. But the question posed by Lincoln is just what would happen to our understanding, as a people, as we had come to incorporate a certain indifference on this point—if we came to think that there was nothing exactly wrong in principle with some men ruling others, as property, without their consent. I am not putting assisted suicide on the same plane as slavery; I am simply trying to remind us of the way in which we may talk ourselves out of moral understandings central to the laws as we talk ourselves into the view that one version of the uses of medicine is quite as reasonable as another. In this way, moral understandings, once firmly settled, become unsettled. And we should not deceive ourselves about the reach of that small change the Court brought forth last week.
One of my best friends, who happens to be a colleague in my department, is also a libertarian, and he assures me that there are many varieties of libertarianism, so it is, of course, something of a generalization to worry too much about the compatibility of this sort of libertarianism with Catholicism. Clearly libertarians can be faithful Catholics, since whatever one happens to think about the morality of assisted suicide, or of anything else, one is not committed to empowering the state to enforce morality unless the common good happens to be at stake as well.

The worry, of course, is the problem of determining when the common good really is at stake, a problem inextricably bound up with the question of what the common good actually is. These are very thorny issues, obviously, and there is no consensus on them even among conservatives, let alone among conservative and libertarians. There is something of a consensus that, when it comes to protecting innocent human life, the common good is involved, and so we have laws against murder. But the consensus even here is tenuous, since not everyone regards the unborn as instantiations of innocent human life, and even some who so regard them do not necessarily think them deserving of the protection of the law. So it should come as no surprise to find that the consensus is even thinner when it comes to issues such as assisted suicide.

Another of my intellectual heroes, Roger Scruton, has written that conservatism, as a political orientation, can be characterized by a committment to certain institutional structures. Scruton does not specify any set of necessary and sufficient structures, but certainly institutional religion would rank high on most lists drawn up by conservatives on the street, even those who are not religious. The reason, I suspect, is that institutional religion provides the clearest framework for understanding fully what is meant by the common good. Political frameworks, such as a democratic constitutional arrangement, can define a common good, but institutional religions are, by their very nature, institutions that reflect the common human experience of generation upon generation of persons who have formed a part of the evolution of a culture, and no political institution can hope to match that for humanistic appeal.


Christopher said...

One of my first introductions to Hadley Arkes -- who I'll join in saying is one of my 'intellectual heroes' -- was a book, aptly titled, First Things. =)

Scott Carson said...

I really enjoy that book, and in fact I've used it from time to time in my Introduction to Ethics classes. Now that you mention it, I think it was my first introduction to him, too.

I happened to meet him in the fall of 1999 at a conference at Bowling Green State University, which I attended primarily so that I could meet him. He was very nice to me, and signed my copy of First things. His talk was on natural law in political theory, and was very interesting.

Darwin said...

I think there's something to your comment that nearly all adolescent boys go through a libertarian stage. Certainly, I did. And I think Heinlein's libertarianism is one of the key elements that makes his "Juvies" some of the most enjoyable golden age science fiction.