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40


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 40, July 9, 1998

Moral Foundations of Libertarian Rights

Honorable Mention Winner, Young Adult Category

By Chris Cathcart (age 21)
don-tiggre@utah-inter.net

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

         The basic moral principle of my moral and political philosophy is that every human being is an end in himself, and is the owner of his or her own life, talents, and efforts. The remainder of this will go into explaining what I mean by this and why I say it.
         The first thing to recognize is the individualization of the good. (In philosophical terminology this is called "agent-relativity of value.") Moral and political philosophers usually share the position that what is morally good is what promotes human interests, happiness, well-being, pleasure, etc., and that what is bad is what promotes misery, pain, suffering, etc. But what they are not in agreement on is whether value is agent-relative or agent-neutral.
         The basic difference between agent-relativists and agent-neutralists on questions of value is whether we can think of something being simply "good," and that something's being "good" calls upon all agents to promote it, or whether the good is necessarily good for a specific agent, and calls upon only that agent to promote it. A chief exponent of the former view is egalitarian philosopher Thomas Nagel; of the latter, libertarian philosopher Eric Mack (and others who follow the tradition of the popular philosopher Ayn Rand).
         An agent-neutral account of the good ends up saying that happiness is good, and by virtue of its being good calls upon all agents to promote it. The agent-neutral conception of values asks us to take an impartial or neutral stance toward the achievement of some good; if you could imagine putting yourself in another's shoes, you would have reason to alleviate some pain that person may be experiencing, for instance. One example used by Nagel is a presentation of one of Immanuel Kant's arguments for a duty of charity: if you place yourself in the position of the person in need of help, you can see why you have reason to recognize a duty of charity.
         On the other hand, the agent-relative viewpoint (which I advocate) says that the good obtains only in relation to a specific individual agent. The only good which calls upon an individual to promote is his or her own interests; it is not necessarily "bad for me" if someone in a distant country is in a state of pain, even though it is bad for that person. It would give that person a reason to act to alleviate that pain, though it doesn't necessarily give me any reason to. In other words, the agent-relative view denies the agent-neutralist view that pain is "simply bad" without specifying an agent for which such pain is bad, and to which reasons could be offered to the agent to take action accordingly.
         The agent-relativity of value is one of the basic features of the moral theory underlying libertarian rights; an attack on libertarian rights would have to in some way undermine the strength of agent-relative values.
         The agent-relativity of value is one major component of a broader moral theory Mack has called Moral Individualism (MI). MI's theory of the good, Value Individualism (VI), is characterized by the agent-relativity of value. But MI also has a theory of interpersonal obligation, Rights Individualism (RI), that complements VI. RI, in a different manner than VI, affirms the basic principle of MI: that individuals are ends in themselves, and as such, have the achievement of their own interests as the basic good of their life, and as such, are not among the morally permissible means or resources available for others' pursuit of their own ends. The means which are morally at one's own disposal for the pursuit of one's interests, and simultaneously morally off-limits for others, is what I term a person's moral territory.
         I think it rather obvious just what comprises one's moral territory, and that is the traditional libertarian rights-claim over one's person and certain extrapersonal resources. I don't say certain material resources, because all rights can be viewed as rightful claims over some material resource, be it one's physical body or extra-personal resources. A rights-claim serves, in effect, as a safeguard of the material implementation of an individual's choices (since one's choices can be implemented in no other fashion than a material one). So it would be quite odd, I think, to somehow make a dichotomy between rights over one's person and rights over property, when both are physical resources that one can rightfully dispose of in pursuit of his or her ends.
         But one's rightful claims over material resources (i.e., one's moral territory) are limited by the extent to which such material resources may already be incorporated into use by others. The principles about correct procedures for procuring extra-personal, physical resources are, in short, Lockean. One can exercise rightful claim over resources to the extent that one either can acquire it initially from its unused state, or from transfer of title thereafter from others.
         In conclusion: if persons are ends in themselves, they are entitled to a certain sphere of action to pursue their own ends free of interference by others. This generates an obligation of forbearance from intrusion upon the moral territory of others, but no positive duty to provide any specific good to others, a la Kant's example employed by Nagel above. The moral territories must be compossible, that is, will not come into conflict given certain procedures by which people may generate just claims over specific material resources (though in the case of claims over one's person, the claim isn't "generated" but already possessed). We may, then, speak of rights as securing and delineating a structure of compossible moral territories.


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