By Alan Mercer, 17 July 2005
As of 2014, my ideas have changed since I wrote this, but I will try to leave this unedited.
Jan Narveson: Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice
Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice: Essays on Moral and Political Philosophy
Once I got past the first couple of essays, I really enjoyed reading Respecting Persons. These essays provide a solid and very satisfying explanation of libertarian fundamentals.
I have also read The Libertarian Idea, which I found more difficult to get through. But it also presents a helpful and unique point of view in how it explains libertarian rights and how a libertarian society might work.
I think you might want to avoid these books if you have a poor attention span, or if you do not feel comfortable with a bit of university-level abstraction (‘it is useful to A to have B believe p’). However, if you are up to the challenge, they are really worth reading.
Another point, significant to me and probably other readers, is that the author has an anti-religious bias. Personally I’m on the fence about religion, but I don’t agree with his negative attitude towards the teaching of creationism in schools for example. I was also relieved he didn’t discuss abortion in Respecting Persons, which is another reason I liked it more than his other book. Of course the author is a solid believer in religious freedom and educational freedom for parents, so his biases don’t influence his pro-liberty attitudes in the area of education.
How many books do you read about morality? Not enough I bet! I think this book is very helpful in explaining a rational basis for social rules of morality. Social morality is not the only kind of morality; there is also morality that helps to build an individual’s life. However, I find his explanations of how social morality comes about to be very helpful.
My view is that the benefits of libertarianism need to be explained in both practical and moral terms. The two go hand in hand. Morality reflects reality. So I like to emphasize the morality of libertarian principles. Furthermore, I think we are in big trouble when we are incapable of discussing politics and life in terms of moral principles.
In my opinion, the power elites like to remove phrases such as “this is wrong”, “this is right”, or “this should not be done” from our vocabulary. For example, it seems to me that politicians and the media avoid direct “should / should not” questions in most of their polls.
It is in their interests to hobble us mentally – if that is possible – so that we are unable to string simple words together to form judgments like “taxation is wrong” and “let me explain why it is wrong”.
God forbid we should be able to think in terms of abstract moral concepts. Politicians, the media and special interests just want to throw the meaningless numbers – the “science” – and the cheap emotions at us. But how do they want us to interpret the so-called “facts” and what conclusions are we allowed to draw?!
Their message is the same old broken record: “There is a problem and the government needs to expand its powers to solve it”. Their conclusion is always that we should hand over more power to them to solve the “problem”, whether it’s “earth warming” or second-hand smoke.
What will be next on their problems to solve agenda besides bike helmets and obesity? Burping babies, diaper rash, space travel, Afghanistan, rock-climbing? The list is endless. Think of all the problems that are none of their bloody business.
Anyway, the bottom line is that I like this book. My impression is that the author strives to develop a consistent, and solidly argued pure version of libertarianism which grapples with the real world. To be pure in a philosophy is to face the truth, which means to recognize what is real. The truth is in our experiences of life, and it is in our hearts and minds. We use our minds and reason to discover what is a lie, what is unsound, what compromises the good, what compromises liberty. To take on the real world, consistency of principle is essential because those who care about ideals and truth will test the soundness of any theory. These books by Jan Narveson put libertarianism to a hard philosophical test that many readers will appreciate.
Summary of Contents
I am not going to attempt to summarize the arguments. All I’m going to do here is present the chapter headings and give a few quotations and comments in order to hint at the direction of each essay.
…individual people have their own lives and interests, and should be credited, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, with not only that but some reason and common sense as well.
Chapter 1 – Utilitarianism and Formalism
Chapter 2 – A Puzzle about Economic Justice in Rawls’ Theory
If what we are concerned about is justice … then it is surely outrageous to propose that every time one person makes more than another from a mutually advantageous voluntary bargain, the former is being unjust to the latter…
Chapter 3 – Marxism: Hollow at the Core
Chapter 4 – On Recent Arguments for Egalitarianism
we may invade person A, though he has harmed no one, so as to improve the lot of person B, though B has done nothing to deserve this
if political power is so constrained that no majority could ever overrule anyone, unless explicitly authorized to do so by all concerned, then we would have a society with no politics at all. Everything would be done by arrangments among the parties concerned, with due care that third parties not be negatively affected…
Chapter 5 – Moral Realism, Emotivism, and Natural Law
A legal law not compatible with moral law is a fraud, and bound to cause trouble.
we are all different people, we don’t necessarily like each other very much, and the temptation to violate the moral restrictions on some people out of the very urge to be helpful to others is frequent and sometimes very strong…
The author presents a rational explanation of how morality can be considered natural – i.e. natural law – based on which set of rules works best for everyone. Moreover, he takes issue with metaphysical explanations of natural law. However, he also believes that moral rules are not just “conventions” created out of thin air, but are rooted in our interests, and are “called for by reflection on the way things generally are and the way we ourselves are”.
And so I think there is much to recommend his point of view, even to traditionalists who have other concerns about morality. I believe that the best way forward for those who belong to various traditions – including secularists – is for each to accept the idea of a free society organized around this kind of basic morality in which everyone is free to pursue his own way as long as his actions do not aggress against the life and property of others. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. In this way we can have many differences but live in peace.
Chapter 6 – Justice as Pure Efficiency
… we do not as such have any positive duties toward others in general – that is, we may not properly be forced to make positive contributions to the welfare of others. For to do so is to worsen one person’s situation in order to improve another’s.
…we are not to do evil to some person or persons in order to bring about what we suppose to be good for some other or others…
Chapter 7 – Toward a Liberal Theory of Ideology ***
By the way, the author uses the term “liberal” in a classical liberal sense only. It has nothing to do with the statist policies that we associate with modern liberalism.
The theory is that some people, the “ruling class(es),” tend to propagate half-truths and untruths to the ruled, who in consequence act so as to solidify, expand, and/or enhance the private interests of the rulers …”
Statistics … are the new growth industry for the aspiring tyrant…
…the sole purpose of government is to serve the governed…
…once the civil servant class gets very large, a very large fraction of the populace owes its living to The System.
Chapter 8 – Property Rights ****
This a very good chapter.
Just to mention one reason why private property rights is superior to other systems: if a central committee controls property, it makes it more difficult for anyone to access the property other than those with political connections.
If all persons really owned everything, then we would have to ask everybody for permission to use anything. All forms of ownership, including commons, exclude others.
That respect consists in a general and reliable disposition to refrain from forcibly depriving others of the results of their work.
The idea that wealth consists in the accumulation of a large mass of natural stuff is utterly wrong…
Chapter 9 – Deserving Profits***
Discusses the difference between desert and entitlement.
Life would be impossible if we depended on others deciding whether we deserved something or not.
…entitlement secures one against the unpredictable decisions, and thus the possible depredations, of others.
For to say that we may interfere whenever it pleases us is to license and, given people with conflicting interests, in effect to invite war, conflict, aggression and defense. But these are inefficient activities.
Chapter 10 – Fixing Democracy ***
Again, a great chapter on the conflict between true liberalism and democracy.
Liberalism recognizes that individuals have their own values, their own agendas, their own interests, and that these differ greatly from one person to another.
There is a really good passage where he explains that:
Freedoms – of religion, of association, of expression, of nonpolitical speech, and above all, of economic activity, not only have no fundamental place in democracy, but are generally and constantly threatened, ignored, or simply obliterated in it. The majority’s natural instinct is to suppress the minority in any and all these respects…
Chapter 11 – The Anarchist’s Case ***
This is a discussion about the potential of peaceful market anarchism (not the violent Socialist kind) and the negative aspects of the State.
Chapter 12 – Have We a Right to Nondiscrimination?
Regarding false beliefs:
are we not agreed that one does not properly outlaw the entertaining of that belief – that in fact the proper way to deal with it is to refute it…
…no duty to give anyone the job, in general; how, then, can it be unjust not to give it to one person rather than another?
Chapter 13 – Collective Rights?
… only individuals can make decisions, can literally have values, literally engage in deliberation and reasoning…
A “negative” right is one imposing only negative duties on others: namely duties not to do various things…
… everyone’s duty is to respect everyone else’s liberty.
Also discusses why we should not interfere coercively with tribal customs we disapprove of:
Outsiders making war or otherwise forcibly intervening in the affairs of such groups is in general unwarranted.
Chapter 14 – The Drug Laws***
It should be a matter of astonishment that in America, the supposed bastion of liberalism, there is an enormous prison population of persons who are guilty of no crime of violence against their fellows.
He argues for Thomas Aquinas’ statement that the law is “an ordinance of reason for the common good” against the ideas of legal positivists who think laws should be obeyed regardless of whether they have merit.
we get to the property idea in the first place by seeing the wisdom of peace, which commits us to refrain from forcibly undoing or blocking the activities of others, so long as those activities do not in their turn consist in invading and blocking others.
liberty … is a necessary condition for doing anything.
This is an excellent essay and so are the last two:
Chapter 15 – Children and Rights***
Chapter 16 – Natural Resources, Sustainability, and the Central Committee***
He demolishes the idea that we are running out of natural resources. You really have to read this essay.
- Jan Narveson’s Home Page
- Some of these essays are online.
Many more are here:
www.dailyapology.com, June 12 ’05:
Book Review of Narveson’s Respecting Persons in Theory and in Practice