Liberty, then what?

“May the intellectual winds occasioned by each conference carry you out onto the philosophical seas, upon which the shores of mediocrity cannot be seen on even the remotest of horizons.”
– my good friend Walter Reid

I begin composing this blog from the City Tavern in Philadelphia where I am drinking Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 Tavern Ale. According to the menu, Jefferson made beer twice a year and this ale is made following his original recipe. After ditching my backpacks at the Apple Hostel on Bank Street, I strolled through the historic streets for a while. The city has character; it’s not pristine, but it is established. Before coming here, if you had said “Pennsylvania” I would have thought of the Pennsylvania Avenue and Pennsylvania Railroad squares on the Monopoly board.* If you had said “Philadelphia” I would have thought of cream cheese and if you said Pittsburgh, I’d have said “Penguins.” Before I came here I didn’t know that Philadelphia was a temporary capital of the United States, that it was here that the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, and that William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges helped to create a bastion of religious liberty. The city of brotherly love was so named for its “Holy Experiment” that had many failures, but also various successes.  So, as I often say, I am traveling the United States this summer to get an American education without paying American tuition, and also to learn some American geography.

I mentioned Tocqueville in my previous post and indeed this thought continues to come to mind: Tocqueville came to America to study the prison system and ended up writing about American democracy, constitutionalism, and liberty. I came to America to study liberty and am ending up learning about welfare statism, the unconstitutional expansion of state jurisdiction, and coercion.

This past week I attended a summer seminar hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies at Bryn Mawr College. Accommodations, meals, tuition, and books are funded for students accepted to the seminars through the generosity of private donors. Throughout the week, we study the ideas of liberty through the various humane disciplines or liberal arts.

I chose to come this particular week because I knew that Dr. James Stacey Taylor would be here and I had met him last year. He is a professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey. He is also notorious for pushing the boundaries in libertarian thought (Are there boundaries?), especially with his arguments for the commodification of human organs, votes, and parental rights. His biography notes that his book Stakes and Kidneys: Why markets in human organs are morally imperative led to him being branded a heretic in the London Times.

WTF do positive rights come from?

Prof. J.S.T. argues that if J.S. Mill’s “Harm Principle” guided public policy, then many actions that are presently illegal would become decriminalized. He introduces students to central ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, especially Francis Hutcheson’s notion of “moral sense.” Additionally, Prof. J.S.T. encourages us to consider why positive rights are less important than negative rights (and might not even exist).

I mentioned to Dr. Taylor my interest in bioethics. Through conversation, he helped me to clarify my interest in philosophical anthropology over practical medical ethics. One of the best parts of Institute for Humane Studies seminars is the evening socials where debates rage on between professors and students, except they become much more interesting because there’s beer involved. So my friend Marc and I engaged in an intense philosophical chat with Dr. Taylor. He proposed numerous trolley cases. The first and most well known is this: There is a trolley about to hit five people. Would you switch it to another track if it meant killing one? I initially and consistently said, “No.” My answer is likely a combination of my study of Plato, Aquinas, Machiavelli, and Dostoyevsky.  I would not choose to destroy life for the sake of life. “But there’s more life,” said Dr. Taylor. The end does not justify the means. I am a Christian and not a utilitarian. One should not commit certain evil so that some possible good may come from it.

This is Marc.

Dr. Taylor is a utilitarian and he rigorously challenged my position. Eventually the hypothetical choice became between an anencephalic [meaning “no brain”] newborn and my new friend Marc, who was sitting across the table from me. I knew little about the particular condition of anencephaly, but resolved that I would not act. Essentially, Dr. Taylor was asking me the same question that Polus asked Socrates: “Would you rather suffer than do injustice?” Socrates replies, “I should not like either, but if I must choose between them, I would rather suffer than do [injustice].” The extension to allowing someone else to suffer rather than choosing calculatingly to commit injustice is simply an act in accordance with the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

C.S. Lewis says, “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” I am interested in what miracles (or mysteries) tell us about the truth of what constitutes human life. A quick search online leads me to find examples of people living when nobody imagined it was possible. According to this article, Nicholas Coke, an anencephalic infant, is still alive at nearly four years old. Then, there is the incredible story of Chase Britton who was born without a cerebellum or pons – which control motor skills, emotions and sleeping and breathing. His mother Heather says, “’No one had ever seen it before. And then we’d go to the neurologists and they’d say, ‘that’s impossible, he has the MRI of a vegetable.’” Cases like these affirm my conviction that all human life is sacred not because of what we can accomplish, but because of what God can accomplish through us. These lives are changing the lives of those around them.

Dr. Taylor argued that he would call dolphins persons, but not fetuses on the basis of self-awareness as the fundamental criterion for personhood. Dr. Taylor raised many important questions that I intend to continue to explore including: What is a person? Why are persons more significant than other forms of life? Why do we have a moral responsibility to protect life?

I appreciated how he challenged me with the utilitarian argument that if you value life, then should you not value the choice in favor of saving more lives over fewer? “There would be so much more dignity and flourishing. It is multiplied,” he said. I could not agree. I was firmly opposed because life that is intrinsically valuable cannot be held up against other lives of the same intrinsic value. It reminded me of a line in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (which I am reading slowly): “True, we love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving.” It is as though the utilitarians are saying: True, life is valuable, not because we value life itself but because we live to value.

One of the most important things I learned in History 200 is to not consider a philosopher apart from his or her biographical and historical context. I had read Dr. Marco Navarro-Genie’s paper on J.S. Mill and Auguste Comte’s correspondence and considered myself mildly more equipped this year to critique Mill’s utilitarianism, positivism, and even millenarianism. I also had a powerful line from his Autobiography on which to dwell throughout the week. Mill wrote about the “crisis of [his] mental history” that occurred when he was twenty. He said:

“Suppose that all the objects in your life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interests in the means? I seemed to have nothing to live for.”

That sounds like downright Augustinian restlessness. I bit my tongue from asking Dr. Taylor, “What’s the most pleasurable thing on earth?” and changed the question to this: “If life is about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, then what is the height of pleasure and is pleasure really the best we can get?” To this he simply said that pleasure is good enough and that pleasure is “pretty darn good.” I wasn’t satisfied.  There are too many testimonies of pleasure failing to please.

Throughout the week, we had sessions on such themes as: spontaneous order, the harm principle, constitutionalism, rational ignorance, formal versus informal institutions, natural morality, libertarian class analysis, schools of economic thought, the Great Depression, the failure of foreign aid versus market-based development success, war, and property rights.
It was an intensely enriching week. I joked that the reason I choose to be a university student during the year is mainly to be eligible for these summer conferences. Of course, both university and summer education is wonderful. I like to, as the mottos go: “Vacation with a purpose” and “Think more, sleep less.”

We had a very interesting debate during the week on whether or not someone can alienate his or her liberty. I raised the point that J.S. Mill makes when he says, “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom.” This issue is raised under the applications section of Mill’s “On Liberty” where he discusses suicide and voluntary slavery. Prof. J.S.T. disagrees with this point and says that voluntary slavery is perfectly morally acceptable because liberty is instrumentally valuable in enabling individuals to lead lives that they see fit and secure the goods that they prefer.  He said:

“Imagine this: Somebody is a devout Catholic and they decide to enter a monastery. They want to enter an order where every one of their actions is controlled by their abbot. They’re going to give up their liberty. They’re doing so freely and voluntarily; to secure a good that they believe is worth it: A regimented life in service of God. I think that people should be allowed to do that. And indeed, we do allow people to do this. […] I believe that liberty is extremely valuable, but it’s valuable instrumentally, as a means to securing the ability of persons to live their lives as they see fit.”

Cloistered Nuns. Voluntary Slaves?

I found this account very interesting and appreciated that he, one of the staunchest defenders of liberty I know, clarified his position that liberty is essentially instrumental, not an end-in-itself. In one session, Prof. J.S.T. discussed legal rights versus moral rights. He teasingly calls legal rights the Lego blocks of rights that we give to lawyers to play with. Moral rights are much more interesting and moral rights are the ones with which philosophers are concerned. At the end of the week, I thought: moral rights are fun, but moral truths are even more exciting. Once we have freedom from coercion and our actions have moral weight, what are the very best actions we can choose to be flourishing human persons fulfilling our freedom in truth? And then, I find myself returning to Aristotle’s Ethics and spiritual reading and gaining increasing enthusiasm for ordered liberty.

This year, I found more people at the seminar to be sympathetic to religious ideas, or at least a bit less hostile. I met some students from Latin America and asked if any of them are planning to attend World Youth Day next summer in Brazil. From there, I had a conversation with a young woman from Guatemala.

She asked, “Have you also been struggling to reconcile libertarianism with your Catholic faith? I thought I was the only one!” So we sat down on some steps and had a very good discussion. We were warned in our conference binders that: “Through all this learning and sharing, new ideas can create a sense of what some researchers call ‘disequilibrium.’” I asked my new friend, “What do you think of the young men at this conference? Do you find yourself asking: Would they make good husbands? Would they make good fathers? As soon as I started speaking like this, I could tell that what I was saying was resonating with her. It is unattractive when people confuse liberty for sheer license and this is the tendency that we had observed.

Also, she goes to Universidad Francisco Marroquin, a free-market, pro-liberty university in Guatemala. (Yes, in Guatemala. You read that correctly.) We discussed how it is practically a competition there, much like at this seminar, to be dogmatically libertarian. (For example, I was called a fascist for supporting laws against drunk driving and age of sexual consent laws. One of the sessions was titled: “Why Not Anarchy?”)

So she was curious about my views on libertarianism and faith. I shared with her some of my experiences. Last year I had attended my first Institute for Humane Studies seminar. I became quite enamored with libertarian ideas, especially since I found them fairly easy to learn and quite difficult to refute. I was beginning to think that freedom makes truth. On a World Youth Day pilgrimage this summer in Madrid, I began to reflect on John 8:32. It says: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” I saw libertarianism as a reversal of this passage and thought about how I was confusing the means for the end. In the Gospels, the disciples are confused too: “”We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” Jesus explains to them that they are slaves to their sin.

Throughout the week, many idealistic visions of a libertarian utopia completely free from coercion were envisioned. I thought about how a book might be written in the same vein as Thomas More’s Utopia with these ideas. Still, there would be human nature. Still, there would be pride. Still, we would not be able to redeem ourselves. Libertopia would not satisfy, nor could it possibly exist. Liberty is the indispensable condition for moral choice. That’s why I want to defend and advance it. But liberty exercised in a refusal to respond rightly to moral truth is misdirected and unfulfilling.

During some of the sessions at World Youth Day, I thought: Wow, I have never heard anything so beautiful, so good, and so true! I asked my friend: Did you ever find yourself thinking that the sessions throughout the week were pointing to something beautiful, good, and true? We concluded that, as much as we learned from the sessions and found them to provide a solid foundation, they did not point very far. She summed up the conversation best when she said, “We need transcendence.”

At the end of the week, Prof. J.S.T. gave another good explanation of the nature of liberty. He said that he considers liberty both “a means to” but also “a necessary part of” the ends which it is instrumental to securing. Oftentimes, a child will be drawing or painting a picture and not doing a very good job. He may sometimes realize that he will do a worse job than the adult supervising him. Still, the child will say, “I want to do it myself.” Dr. Taylor says he thinks that this behavior can give us important insight into human nature and he thinks this desire “to do it myself” is carried through beyond childhood. This reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s character Bernard Marx in Brave New World who says, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.”

The Institute for Humane Studies seminar was another enriching educational experience. I am grateful to the students, faculty, organizers, and donors for making it happen. I appreciated the opportunity to explore the philosophical foundations of free society and to question my assumptions. Dr. James Stacey Taylor was particularly helpful. He challenged me rigorously, welcomed me to conversations, and was respectful, patient, and kind.

At the very end of the week, I asked him if there is one thing that he advises that students bear in mind. To this he replied: “Remember that most people genuinely want to make the world better.” Since most people seem to attest to this by their lives, I am inclined to take it to heart and try to repair the world (Tikkun Olam), but not to redeem or recreate it.

*I have since learned that Pennsylvania Avenue is “America’s Main Street” actually located in Washington, D.C.


2 thoughts on “Liberty, then what?

  1. Excellent post Amanda! “Liberty is the indispensable condition for moral choice. That’s why I want to defend and advance it. But liberty exercised in a refusal to respond rightly to moral truth is misdirected and unfulfilling.” – nice quote…

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