Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Libertarian philosophy and me

Although most of the posts on this blog lean toward the legal-technical, I’m digressing a bit into the philosophy underneath all these concerns.

The past few decades have given rise to a philosophy and cultural value that we could call personal autonomy (or individual sovereignty), along with the doctrine that society should not interfere with the right of the individual to make private choices in how to engage other consenting adults. This philosophy is particularly commensurate with gay rights when viewed from the point of view of individual adult relationships, pursued privately without expectation of support from others. Along these lines, an organization GLIL (Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty) developed in the 1990s and disseminated a newsletter, The Quill, which I edited for two years.

This philosophy came to be challenged for a couple of reasons. One is that, with the rise of the Internet and other low cost global media, sexuality has been perceived as having an expressive aspect as well as simply a way to relate to others. Traditional marriage supports the idea that public approbation, without too much visible challenge, is necessary to enable families to stay together (in the "family bed"), raise their kids, and support the elderly. Individualists claim that those who are different are penalized to make them support the collective values of the majority, to make individual members of the majority more comfortable. Hyperindividualism comes to be perceived as too troubling to those who are individually disadvantaged. Furthermore, individualism can be undermined by exogenous threats (whether natural or from enemies) that would require people to maintain familial solidarity in order to survive. All of these collective arguments were often posed in terms of religious faith, which accepts external authority rather than scientific methods as a source of truth and knowledge.

At this point, we have to return back to a split in our thinking. Libertarianism bases its moral thinking on non-aggression. It is wrong, therefore, to force one person to make sacrifices to meet another’s needs. Logically, that means that the government should not redistribute wealth, or force one person to sacrifice for the interests of another as, for example, with conscription, or with laws that invade privacy (like sodomy laws or drug use laws). The underlying principle seems to be that an individual should be accountable for himself, no matter what. Marriage law, to the extent that it gets the state involved in what seem to be religiously driven principles for a wholesome collective experience (the nuclear family) breaches this idea.

It’s often difficult to tell how far to go with limiting the reach of the law. You need the law to have the stability necessary for expressive freedom. An obvious area is security (and here I won’t go into the pandora’s box of legislation, the Patriot Act and so on, that can randomly ensnare innocent citizens, other than to say that some threats cannot be parried perfectly). A more ambiguous area is tort reform. While libertarianism is based on freedom to contract, the threat of frivolous litigation can have a serious chilling effect on expressive freedom.

But another more subtle area is to realize that limiting the reach of statutory law does not in itself mean abandoning all more collective ideas of morality. It is well to characterize the proper moral foundation of the law as the "Harm Principle" (as described by law professor Elizabeth Foley in her new book "Liberty for All") and recognize that society will typically expect people to share certain obligations (especially family responsibility) in a pro-active way outside of the law, and that these obligations can have a tremendous practical effect on freedom and on life choices available. In a general way, the opposition to “equal rights for gays” has a lot to do with a perception that gays (men particularly) have abandoned "family responsibility." Now this gets mixed up with ideas about blood loyalty (and openness to procreation, or to new life for its own sake) that people have trouble talking about today. The "moralists" maintain a system of thought that is both circular and existential (the term "aesthetic realism" has been used). From a moral point of view, even as a libertarian would think, any successful person today benefited from adults who reached out to him or her before the age of reason or cognizance, so returning that outreach to other generations (both the children of the next generation and the disabled and sometimes the elderly today) sounds like paying back a moral debt that one owes.

I have become vocal in public with my books, sites and blogs, and some people express discomfort that I draw attention to myself when I don’t accept (emotional) accountability to anyone else. Maybe that accountability is becoming an underground moral expectation. Without getting too far into sensitive matters, it is easy to imagine that some entities would not feel that I was a trustworthy person to do business with without that personal or emotional accountability and return, without “paying my dues.” That would still fall under the rubric of the way libertarianism works.

It is important, however, to look at what people expect from the normal modes of socialization, the family and the hierarchal workplace and political structure. It’s obvious that it opens the system up for corruption and cronyism. Maybe a singleton like me is less vulnerable to some kind of blackmail or to making enemies than those whose emotions are overly tied to domain over others (look at the plot of the soap “Days of our Lives.”)

For me, psychological survival depends upon setting up my own course and goals, independent of the special needs of others around me. I think that the knowledge management that I have discussed in these pages is essential in order to have an objective grip on the issues. That has become a “retirement goal”, yet some people challenge me with that good this is if it does not benefit some specific person in need. Yes, sometimes I don’t like to be disturbed some times or forced into giving others attention or acting as a male protector or role model (that was a problem when I was substitute teaching), because in a certain way that would undermine the experiences with others that I want when I am in a position to find them. After all, I do not have a biological or equivalent lineage of my own to call a personal domain, people to whom I would normally behave partially toward--especially to "protect" it from the natural emotional and social prejudices of others. There is the disturbing idea that I must represent the interests of someone else with some kind of loyalty before I may represent “the truth.” I would rather stick to the truth, and keep it absolute.

I know, however, that many people see the church and nuclear family as the domain in which to reconcile the political with the personal; they see religious and filial responsibility as a moral justification for individuality, without which we would be living in collective political systems where both personal virtue and interpersonal loyalty responsibility are defined by the state. We’ve seen that before, all the way from Maoism to fascism (including radical Islam). That “deal” does not work for me personally. For one thing, then knowledge itself is defined by the state or by religious authority, pretending to be "the people" or "the Folk." True individualism is going to be a hard sell in today’s troubled world.

No comments: