Posts tagged Morality

Column on Another Criticism of “Animal Rights”

Another Criticism of “Animal Rights”

Tibor R. Machan

Though this is a topic that I have visited on several occasions, having recently become an avid fan of the Discovery Channel’s series on life in the deep oceans and other seas, I am motivated to observe just how absurd the notion of animal rights really is.

Here we have the oceans of the globe teeming with billions of critters of immense variety. Looked at close up these are often very beautiful animals, indeed, and their agility is fantastic, to say the least. Not that people cannot match what these animals can do, although some of their feats are not within human reach except with extensive technological assistance. But it is undeniable that the wales, octopuses, herrings, crabs, seals, sharks; they do have amazing lives and incidentally put on a great show. At times what they do takes one’s breath away!

But there is an element to the lives of all these animals that makes it very clear that although there is much that we humans share with them–as with other animals across the earth–there is one area where humans really are distinctive, namely, in having a moral dimension in their lives. The widespread and unrestrained carnage that is routine in the seas is something that is mostly found seriously objectionable when evident among people, at least for the last several thousand years. Not that human beings always conduct themselves peacefully, properly and in a civilized fashion. But that when they do not, it is properly found to be wrong, morally objectionable. It is no excuse to say, well that’s just how we are–carnivorous beasts, through and through. Animals, however, are mostly just that. And their fans among us testify to this when they direct their moral ire at us, not the killers among them.

Here what comes to my mind is the moral high ground claimed by those who object to eating meat, by vegans, for example, who choose to consume only vegetables not for reasons of nutrition but for supposedly moral ones. In short, the claim is that vegans act as we all should, refraining from killing and otherwise using animals. (Exactly why it’s OK to kill fruits and vegetables is a complicated story told by them.) Clearly, however, all those murderous animals of the seas, planes and forests are acting just as they must–there is nothing of “should or should not” about any of it. Right and wrong do not pertain to how nonhuman animals carry on, mainly because they have no choice about it, at least none that is evident. In contrast, people have identifiable standards that guide them to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. And when these are violated, they can be chided, even condemned. In short, people have a moral nature which other animals do not.

It can be wished for, of course, that the carnage in the wilds diminish, that wild animals behaved nicer toward one another but that is all it is, a wish. That’s the Bamby syndrome, as some call it, extrapolating from the human animal to the rest, a bit in the fashion of Disney animations.

But there is no justification for this, seriously! Any careful observation of the rest of nature will make it evident that applying moral criteria to how animals live is in error–what philosophers have called a “category mistake.” And at the same time and for similar reasons, ascribing rights to animals is also misguided, just as would be to ascribe guilt to them when they carry out their killings and maiming in the wilds.

I am not about to speculate on the motivation behind the way some animal lovers want us to relate to animals and why they insist on confusing them with us in certain important respects. These may vary a great deal. Certainly empathy plays a role–we do share a great deal with the rest of the animals, including the capacity for feeling pain and even loss. But none of these translate well into the moral point of view and making the attempt can lead to unnecessary hostilities among human beings and even worse, to public policies that are very intrusive.

Column on Krugman’s Incoherent Moral Stance

Krugman’s Incoherent Moral Stance

Tibor R. Machan

Finally Paul Krugman, Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and columnist for The New York Times, has come clean about his “moral” position (TNYT, January 14, 2011). He has admitted that he doesn’t believe that when you earn something, you own it. (Don’t know if he believes we own things we haven’t earned, such as our kidneys or eyes! Maybe he thinks that as with earned resources, these unearned ones, especially, belong to the government which can proceed to distribute them just as Krugman thinks it can redistribute the resources citizens have actually come by through hard work, ingenuity, luck and the like.) Let’s see then whether Kurgman’s moral stance has any chance of being sound. Is it the morality by which people ought to guide their conduct in their lives? Do we and what we own belong to government to do with as government officials believe? But isn’t that slavery?

If my life doesn’t belong to me–if the norm the Declaration of Independence identifies as universal, namely, that every human being has a right to his or her life, is false–then what is true? Does my life belong to the government? If we recall that government is a group of individuals to whom a certain social role has been delegated–namely, the role of securing the rights of the citizenry–the claim that government owns our lives and resources means nothing else but that these individuals in government own our lives and resources.

But that is very odd–why would those people be in the privileged position of owning us and what to all appearances belongs to us while we, also human beings and with equal rights, do not own our lives and resources? This makes no sense.

So when we take even a cursory look at Professor Krugman’s position, it turns out to be incoherent, rank nonsense. It reminds me of the remark attributed to the poet W. H. Auden, namely, “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” So we all belong to government but then to whom does government belong?

The idea that we belong to government is obscene and harks back to an age when Caesars, monarchs, tsars, Pharaohs and such were believed to have been given their realm by God and everything within that realm, including all the human beings, therefore belonged to them. Later these slaves and serfs began to be called subjects, implying that they were all subject to the will of the government. This is were serfdom and even taxation have their origin.

Now we have, in 21st century America, one of the most prominent commentators and educators reiterate this horrendous outlook. Incredible. But it gets even worse.

An essential aspect of any bona fide moral position is that it must be practiced voluntarily, not because someone–e. g., government–holds a gun to one’s head and coerces one to do what is right. That doesn’t count as doing the right thing, so any such policy is literally demoralizing. It robs people of the opportunity to be morally good (or bad, of course).

A society that’s fit for human habitation must not have policies that prevent citizens from exercising moral judgment. So, OK, assume for a moment that we should devote ourselves entirely to serving other people, to serving the public good. If, however, all of this is accomplished through governmental coercion like taxation, regulation, regimentation, and so forth, there can’t be anything moral about it. So Dr. Krugman’s so called moral stance isn’t one at all. It leaves no room for morality because it makes all purportedly moral conduct involuntary, imposed by rulers and not a matter of one’s own free will.

So Krugman’s moral stance is not only incoherent but it isn’t even a moral stance. So much for the “morality” of one of America’s foremost public philosophers.

What someone like Dr. Krugman could more fruitfully do is urge people to be generous toward those in need, to give support to worthy causes, to help the poor, etc., but always of their own free will. That is what moral leaders may do, nothing else. Whether the morality they advocate is sound is another matter. But to remain something morally relevant it must not be imposed. Elementary, Dr. Krugman, really.

Column on Do We Have a Moral Nature?

Do We Have a Moral Nature?

Tibor R. Machan

It is often held, by admirers of modern science (which took off near the 15th century) that if human beings are parts of nature, there can be no room for morality in their lives. They are then simply complicated machines working as they must, with no possibility that they can make choices, which is an essential part of morality. Science and morality are, then, often juxtaposed.

But there are several problems with this. For one, nature is bountiful in its variety; so simply because other parts of it are mostly determined to move as they must, it doesn’t follow that all parts do. Just as there are living things that swim, as well as some that fly or simply slither about, there could also be some that are dumb beasts and others that think, reason and make choices. Nothing unnatural about that at all. And once something uses higher reasoning to get on in its life, choices are just around the corner.

Also, those who insist that we are all fully determined to do as we do tend, paradoxically, to be very moralistic about insisting that this is how everyone ought to think about us. In effect they believe, “No one ought to believe that people have free will, that they can make genuine choices in their lives; they ought to be thought of as complex machines.” However, without the capacity to choose, such admonitions are meaningless. Without the capacity to choose, without free will, our thinking is also purely determined and so if we do believe in free will, we then must believe in it. Yet why then get annoyed with us for failing to heed the advice of those who deny our capacity to choose?

Not only that, innumerable scientific minded folks make moral declarations galore. Blaming and praising are part of this exercise and champions of the scientific way quite often blame and praise. They blame those who reject their imperialism about how nature behaves and they praise those who share it. They often outright denounce those who think they shouldn’t be given extensive government funding for their work.

In the recent discussions by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, the group called “the new atheists,” all kinds of blaming is in evidence when others who don’t embrace Darwinian evolution or do embrace creationism are being talked about. These people, these champions of science insist, others aren’t doing the right thing, namely, accepting Darwin as correct about how the world works. (Not even all of these scientifically minded people deny free will, by the way.)

The point I am making isn’t about whether such blaming or praising is correct but that it doesn’t square with the belief that we are all determined to be the way we are, that we all work like machines.

In more recent discussions of human choice some scientists have suggested that there might be room for it now that Newtonian physics has been superseded by contemporary, post-Heisenbergian quantum physics, the kind that leaves some room for uncertainty (at least at the subatomic level of existence) and thus might allow that not everything is fully determined to happen one and only one way. (Not that the features of quantum physics that they rely on for this necessarily support anything like human freedom of choice!) In particular the late Karl Popper and John Eccles had thought that the new physics allows for free will (presented in their book The Self and Its Brain [Springer Verlag, 1977]).

So while there is wide consensus among champions of the natural sciences about whether human beings have a moral nature–can reasonably be held responsible for the conduct they choose to embark upon–some dissidents do exist who think that, yes indeed, we are moral agents; it’s a distinguishing aspect of our nature but still quite natural. And certainly quite a few scientists and their champions act like we all did have free will, when, for instance, they blame those who refuse to accept their ideas about evolution. As already mentioned, blaming someone implies they have the freedom to choose how they think and act.

Of course, the world of human beings is filled with moral elements. Personal, social, political and international affairs are all replete with moral concerns, with how we ought to and ought not to think and act. And since this is also in evidence among scientists, it is probably the right way to think about us.

Column on Why Obama Doesn’t Seem to Relate–emotionally

Why Obama Doesn’t Seem to Relate–emotionally

Tibor R. Machan

Most of the time when I hear about how President Obama lacks
the emotional disposition that most Americans would like to see him
demonstrate, I am disinclined to make much of the point. What I want
from someone in the role of the presidency is good thinking and not
sensitivity.

Nonetheless I have been paying a bit more attention to this
criticism of the President because as I have been following his
efforts to bolster the chances of Democrats to remain in power in
Washington, DC, I have noticed that there is something amiss with how
he comes over emotionally.

As a start, Mr. Obama is always glib, as if nothing on earth
could phase him, as if it is all old hat to him, he is way ahead of
everyone. This comes through, for instance, in his repeated dismissal
of anything that members of the Tea Party complain about. And that’s
just the beginning.

One related steady emotional theme in the president’s talks is
the effort to be accommodating toward critics and enemies of America.
Indeed, the very idea that Mr. Obama would identify anyone as an enemy
of the United States of America seems off base. This is because it
looks like he is mostly interested in building bridges between us and
them, however barbaric they may be.

Mr. Obama is one of those American intellectuals who appears to
be stopped from criticizing anyone abroad because, well, this country
has had slavery and segregation and poverty so how could it justify
being critical of anyone. It shows a spirit of perpetual
self-criticism and mea culpa, attitudes that appear to dominate the
president’s conscience (and we are here talking about appearances).
There is no black and white for the man–no one, not even a vicious
terrorist and a leader of a country in which women are systematically
and barbarically oppressed, justifies for him any sort of firm moral
condemnation. Like those ever-permissive parents who always have an
excuse for what their offspring are doing, no matter how mischievous
or outright evil it manages to be, for Mr. Obama those who attack
America, actually attack innocents everywhere, just could not be all
bad, unworthy of understanding.

This mentality of turning the other cheek, no matter what,
appears to underlie the widespread distrust people have of Mr. Obama’s
emotional makeup. Emotions, although they are ultimately unreliable
guidelines to action, are pretty good clues to what system of values
someone has internalized. If one has to force oneself disapprove of
or condemn vicious conduct and people and it doesn’t arise naturally,
people who do have a sense of just how bad some others can be will
become suspicious.

President Obama and his cheerleaders must realize that
eloquence is no substitute for emotional balance, for being in tune
emotionally with what those deserve who comport themselves
villainously. Being well spoken is not enough. One must also have a
sense of what needs to be said, have substance to communicate, a sense
of justice, if you will.

Or perhaps Mr. Obama just despises being disliked by people,
even by vicious rulers abroad. But that, too, reveals his emotional
priorities. Mr. Obama needs to open himself up to the possibility
that some people should really be hated, that they are evil and not
merely misguided, sick, or deranged.

Human life is distinctive in the world precisely because human
beings have a moral nature and they can act irresponsibly, morally
deplorably, contemptibly, as well as admirably, demonstrating moral
excellence. And while that idea has always had its detractors, the
moral skeptics, they simply cannot sustain their denial that people
are moral agents and capable of doing vile things for which they ought
to be condemned. They do not deserve sympathy but contempt.

And this is evident from the fact that the one exception to the
skeptics’ ambivalence about morality is their own utter contempt for
those who do take morality seriously. They tend to be dismissed, even
derided, as fundamentalists or moralizers, which is clearly and
paradoxically something (morally?) contemptible to the skeptics!

Moral skeptics usually are hoisted on their own petard. Their
amoral stance isn’t philosophically sustainable because human beings
are indeed moral beings, unlike the rest the members of the living
world. And one result of having a moral nature and admitting to it is
that one will openly cope with moral evil as well as moral excellent.
If one denies this, as it seems President Obama does when it comes to
America’s enemies, it will eventually stand in the way of reaching out
to ordinary people.

Ethics & Responsibility

Ethics and Responsibility*

Tibor R. Machan

I want to discuss a very important element of ethics in almost any school of moral philosophy. Ethics is probably one of those fields in philosophy that has many, many competing schools. The basic task of ethics is to answer the question, “How should I act?” “What standards apply to me as I conduct my life?” “What are the fundamental principles that I should follow?” Those are pretty much equivalent questions but the answers are extremely complicated and multi-faceted. There are a lot of very different answers that have been proposed and these are the schools of ethics most people are familiar with. Almost every major philosopher throughout the history of philosophy, east and west, has advanced an ethical theory; a theory about how human beings should conduct themselves. This is something most philosophers do. Some even contend that ethics is but a branch of politics which is prior to it, although the opposite is how most view it today. They contend that among the ancient Greeks, like Aristotle, politics is prior to ethics, although reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics doesn’t consistently support this idea.

There are, however, also philosophers and other thinkers who deny that there is any such discipline as ethics. In fact many philosophers, as well as many social and natural scientists, contend that the entire field of ethics is bogus. It’s akin to astrology, something most regard as a bogus field, and a lot of social and natural scientists believe this about ethics. There is no valid idea that includes the concept “ought.” Ought is an incoherent concept. That’s because judgments including it cannot be shown to be true (or false). Also those who are skeptical about ethics deny that we have any choice about how we conduct ourselves, that we can make free decisions as to what we will do. Thus for two reasons for many ethics is a non-starter (like astrology).

But the bulk of philosophers (and I would say the bulk of human beings) have a concern with ethics and take it seriously. They don’t dismiss it as bogus but tend to think there is a right answer to the question, “How should I act?” or “How should I conduct my life?” or “What principles should guide me?” whenever it is raised.

One reason that ethics arises for us (not an uncontroversial reason but a reason that makes sense) is that we don’t have the requisite set of instincts–or “hard wiring”–prompting us to behave as we need to in order to survive and flourish in our lives. If you look at almost any other animal (and I’m not going to get into the big debate as to whether there are some borderline cases), almost all have these instincts, these hard-wirings, so that, for example, in the winter they fly south and they don’t have to have a committee or go to graduate school to learn about it. Human beings, in contrast, have to figure out what they should do, how they should conduct themselves, whether to do this or that. When one’s a parent, one needs to make a choice too be a good one but might not do so and simply muddle through it all. When you’re a professor you have to consider how to be a competent one, a decent teacher and scholar, etc. And so on and so forth throughout the entire landscape of human activities. The issue of what are the right things to do and what are the wrong things to avoid doing always faces us. That is what editorials are about, that is what most famous plays and novels are about. Almost anything interesting in life tends to revolve around ethics.

Now I’m not going to try to sketch an ethical theory here but discuss the connection between ethics and human responsibility.

Responsibility is a very broad concept and one sense of it underlies any school of ethics; whether one considers utilitarianism, altruism, egoism, Aristotelian or Kantian ethics sound, all involve a person’s responsibility for conduct. However one answers the question, “How ought I conduct myself?” the issue of responsibility is central and unavoidable. But what does it mean? What is being meant here by using the concept of responsibility?

There are many uses of the idea “responsibility”. Sometimes crop failures are due to the weather so the weather is taken to be responsible for them. Buildings collapse because of earthquakes so earthquakes are responsible for the carnage. In this sense responsibility means that these factors are the causes of such happenings. What happens is because of this or that event that is responsible.

There is a relationship between this use of the term “responsible” and the one that bears on ethics but it is a controversial relationship because ethics in its customary sense–namely pertaining to how human beings ought to act–assumes one of the most controversial contentions in philosophy, psychology, and almost the entire list of the human sciences. That is that human beings have something usually called free will, that they can act one way or the other and it is up to them how they will act. What they choose to do is not because of god, the weather, their genes, their DNA or anything else. They, the actors or agents, are the ones who are responsible.

Those of us with children are familiar with this without having to become too philosophical. Children quite early in their lives try to avoid being held responsible for bad things and prefer being credited for good deeds. This is a very early idea in one’s life–as well as in the history of philosophy. It is one of the earliest ideas of ethics in any region of the world. Wherever people talk or write about ethics, it is generally assumed that they have to do the right thing of their own free will. This is very common with many thinkers, especially those writing novels, editorials, Op Ed columns and the like. Whenever there is exhortation about what people should and should not be doing, the idea surfaces immediately for blame and praise are accorded in the case of most significant human activities.

Some are unsure in their views on the matter but most have, to the extent that they have a normative framework, views about how people ought to act, whether individually or institutionally. In all such cases there is much concern about responsibility. And that is quite natural. One need not be an academic philosopher to appreciate that when human beings worry about their lives they worry about something over which they believe they have a say. They have some effective influence over how they will act. They are what is often referred to in philosophy as the causal agent of their actions. And if there is anything to that, then indeed a central element of human life is one’s personal responsibility to do the right thing so that if one fails to do the right thing, one is usually held responsible for it. Criminal law obviously banks on this notion and ethics and morality do as well.

The difference between ethics and morality isn’t germane here–”ethics” was the earlier term used by the ancient Greeks and it usually meant living right, whether it has to do with one’s personal life or the lives of intimates over whom one has influence or strangers. Morality mostly has to do with coordinating properly our actions with the actions of others. Morality is the social dimension of ethics. Though this may not seem like very significant, the distinction has had a major influence on the evolution of ethics, at least Western thought. (It is often maintained now that how one ought to act is only important when it effects other people, not oneself.)

After the highly influential work of Thomas Hobbes, there has been more emphasis on morality, on what you might call social ethics instead of personal ethics such as that which we find in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But this is not a major issue here. Both ethics and morality concern themselves with right as distinguished from wrong conduct.

A very recent (in the sweep of human history) thinker on this matter was Immanuel Kant who coined a motto that many philosophers invoke when they connect ethics and freedom. The motto is, “Ought implies can.” It just means that if one ought to do or abstain from doing something, it has to be what one is capable of doing. It is nonsense to say someone ought to jump 30 feet into the air unassisted because that’s impossible. One couldn’t very well have a moral responsibility to do the impossible.

So “ought implies can” refers to the fact that one has to be able to choose between doing something or not doing it in order to have the ethical or moral responsibility to do it. And there is another element to this as well. Not only must one be free to do the right thing and not be compelled one way or another–not just that it is one who is doing it–but it’s must also be knowable. In other words, what is the right thing to do has to be correctly answerable because if there is no possible correct answer to the question, “what is the right thing to do?” or “what ought I to do?” then one can’t do it. So if “ought” does imply “can,” then it also requires that there be some standards of proper conduct, of proper behavior.

The issue here isn’t which of the many ethical systems that have been proposed, advocated, defended, and championed throughout the history of ethics is right. Instead here it is these elements that are crucial: People have to be free and there has to be some standard by which their conduct is to be evaluated. Otherwise there is no ethics. Ethics then really becomes a bogus field if you cannot be free to choose the right course and if you cannot determine what the right course is. And needless to stress, all these are extremely controversial issues in the field of moral philosophy in ethics, especially in a field that precedes ethics, called metaethics.

Metaethics simply means, how do we get to know about ethics? How do we figure out ethics? Metaethics is the considerations that come before we get to the issue of how we should conduct ourselves. There are considerations that need to be handled before that and one of them is, “Are you free to choose?” The other one is, “Is there a way to determine what is the right thing to do?” These are metaethical issues. The ethical issues are, “What should I do?” or “What should I not do?” But “How do I know it?” is what’s called a metaethical issue. If one pays close attention to this, one will already have an inkling how this all relates to political philosophy, even political theory. Clearly if one is responsible for one’s conduct and others interfere with and prevent one from acting feely, one’s ethical life is squelched. If somebody forces a person to do something, one is not going to be able to take any credit for or be blamed for it. Which is well recognized in criminal law and it is also in morality. People often defend themselves against charges of malpractice or misconduct in court by trying to make out the case that they could not help themselves, that they did not have the freedom to act, that they were not the ones that were responsible for the behavior that is deemed criminal. It was something else. Maybe it was drugs, or “the devil made me do it.”

This idea of the intimate connection between freedom and ethics is ancient, hardly anybody denies it. There are some, however, who are deniers. These are people who in my view have abandoned ethics altogether but still like to keep the word around. They are people who believe that although you don’t have the freedom to choose, or there really isn’t any way to determine there is right conduct versus wrong conduct, nonetheless there is some vague thing called ethics having to do with what the public expects of one, or how one may be enticed to act in certain ways that are desirable from the social point of view, or some other thing; these aren’t what ethics is about, however, only what may be associated with ethics. Such matters pertain to what is to be encouraged amongst each other that’s desirable, but not with choosing to do the right thing, which is the province of ethics proper.

Doing the right thing is the task of a sovereign individual, someone who has the capacity to choose and may exercise that capacity well or badly, That is where this issue of responsibility pertains to human beings squarely and in a society in which the government regiments the population (even just a little sometimes is enough) what takes place as a result is demoralization, the removal of moral choice from people’s concerns. IN such a regimented society people’s moral lives are undercut and undermined. They no longer have the responsibility to act properly because the law has taken it upon itself to coerce them into doing whatever governments considers to be the right thing to do and to abstain from what government regards wrongful conduct. But if one is coerced to do the morally right thing, one is not actually doing it. One then has become a mere puppet.

One thing one tells one’s children after they have reached a certain age is that now they must take responsibility for their own actions, whereas before that one is perfectly willing to give them very close instructions as to what they should do, maybe even force them to do the right thing (but perhaps only with an eye to their growing up to do it on their own, rather than being prodded into doing it).

Some aspects of the current political situation are incompatible with the intimate connection between ethical responsibility and political freedom. Most generally put, it is where other people treat one as though they were one’s parents. A recent inventions of President Obama’s close associated and an architect of forthcoming government regulations is Professor Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School. He and some others have forged the concept of “libertarian paternalism” or “governmental nudging,” both oxymorons by any reasonable account. What Sunstein and Co. have in mind is a situation in which people are manipulated into doing what the government considers the right thing for them to do, akin to how when one attends a party at someone’s house who want one to take off one’s shoes at the entrance. They are likely to leave some kind of clue at the entrance, such as a bunch of shoes by those who live at the house, suggesting that it’s time to take off one’s shoes, without having to come up and ordering one to take off one’s shoes. That would be libertarian paternalism or nudging.

Sunstein co-wrote a book with Richard H. Thaler, titled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale 2008) that instead of promoting out and out tyrannical government promotes a subtle and circumspect but still intrusive public policy by means of which citizens will be manipulated so as to bring about the government’s goals in such a way that one won’t really notice this. Such would be a not very disguised Machiavellianism for the 21st century.

Once again, the notion that you ought to be free to conduct your own affairs is trumped with the idea that we need to be ruled, even if only with a nudge.

There are many other areas where this kind of interference, pushing, and paternalism take place. It is almost impossible to list them in the current political climate because virtually everything that is done in Washington and in many other centers of legal power amounts to interference in people’s liberties. And, of course, there is always some excuse, some attempt to achieve something good or worthwhile. Often complaining about is met with the response that, well, it is done all over the civilized world, such as France, Germany, England, and Scandinavia.

Yet what is missed in this reply is that the American political system began by rejecting the approaches to public affairs deployed in most places around the globe precisely because of their intrusiveness. Any good that is achieved by intrusive, coercive means, be these mild or Draconian, looses it’s moral significance. It can’t even be considered a bona fide human good, one that’s brought about by human beings, because such a good must be the result of human choice and not coercion, not from having a gun put to the heads of the human agent.

And this has to do with the connection between responsibility, ethics, and freedom, the kind that the classical liberal tradition has started to emphasize more and more over the last 500 years and which had its full public impact during the American Revolution with an official document, the Declaration of Independence, that enshrined those ideas as political guidelines.

The Declaration of Independence makes reference to our unalienable natural rights, ones no one can lose as long as one is human. Those are the rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of one’s happiness, among others (!), all of which require one to be free to choose. (Notice it doesn’t mean that one has a right to happiness but to the pursuit of it, something that no one can guarantee that anyone will actually do.) Having the right to choose doesn’t mean that one will in fact exercise it. One might not. Even to pursue happiness is but an option, not a demand–one may just decide to settle for being melancholy (as one recent book recommends–it argues that melancholia is a healthier state for civilized human beings than the pursuit of happiness).

In any case, no one can have a moral life, conduct oneself in morally significant ways, act morally responsibly, without the right to freedom. Its’ not possible and those who try to promote that idea are badly mistaken.

—————–

*This is a transcript of a lecture delivered at Cato University, San Diego, CA , in July 2009.