Friday, February 11, 2005

Libertarianism, Value Pluralism and Rules

Timothy Burke has a post here about what he thinks is one of the sources of the libertarian idea - both on the left and the right - that the state has no business interfering in its citizens lives, arguing that the way in which a set of rules, necessarily general, will come to the wrong conclusion in some cases because they cannot take proper account of the complexity of our moral lives seems to bear against the state, which must act through rules (positive law, for example, is a set of rules). This bears some resemblance to my complaint against consequentialism below: as his example of the practice of clearing parking spaces shows (really: it's a good example), there are all kinds of competing consideration at work when we judge acts or persons morally, and rules, because they have to be simple and general to work at all, can't take all those things into account. I think we need rules, and we just have to accept that while they might seem arbitrary at the margins, they are justified if they catch an important set of cases most of the time, and that the state is not the only institution whose use of rules might distort our moral experience, so I don't feel the pull of the libertarian intuition. What I think is interesting is what gives rise to this feature of our moral experience. I think value pluralism, in the sense of competing and to some degree incommensurable values, gives rise to this feature. This alone can explain the thought that in the case of Jim and the Indians (see the post on consequentialism) Jim both ought to save the nine other Indians and ought not to kill the sacrificial victim: the duty to prevent harm and the duty to not cause harm conflict here, and we can't fulfil both.

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