Scanlon on libertarianism and the value of liberty

Scanlon on libertarianism and the value of liberty

T.M. Scanlon's response to my reply to his short essay on liberty and libertarianism offers a nice chance for me to add some of what I couldn't fit in my initial reply due to the word limit. 


Scanlon writes:

If we should set aside my second and third lines of argument, this seems to leave two possibilities. The first is that the libertarian case for free markets and limited government rests on some other conception of liberty, which I did not consider. Wilkinson does not suggest such an alternative. The other possibility is that the “liberty” in “libertarianism” refers simply to the institutions that libertarians favor—free markets and limited government—which are justified on grounds other than the value of liberty (simply grounds of efficiency, as DeLong suggests, or broader grounds, as perhaps in the works Wilkinson cites in the footnote at the end of his comment.) If so, then although the conclusion I arrived at is still correct, my initial characterization of libertarianism—as founding a political program on an independent idea of liberty—is mistaken.

What makes a liberal system of institutions distinctively liberal? Here are two options. A system counts as liberal just in case (a) it accords a certain priority to the protection and promotion of liberty, whatever its justificatory basis of this priority, or only if (b) the system accords a certain priority to the protection and promotion of liberty on the basis of the value of liberty alone

If it's (a), then it must be possible to establish the priority of liberty on grounds other than just the value of liberty, or on "broader grounds" that perhaps includes the value of liberty among other values. If this is true of liberalism generally, it's going to be true of any specification of liberalism, including those that recommend a political program of "limited government and free markets." But then its no knock against libertarian versions of liberalism to note that, like all kinds of liberalism, the priority of liberty in libertarian theories is established by the appeal to a plurality of values. 

If it's (b), then I guess I can't really think of any examples of a theory that derives the priority of liberty directly from the sole value of liberty. I can think of plenty of liberal and libertarian theories that derive the priority of liberty from certain deontic constraints that are supposed to get their normative teeth from the nature of nature or the nature of reason. There are two main kinds of bad liberal and libertarian theories, in my opinion: this kind and the utilitarian kind. According to neither does an independent idea of liberty play the key justificatory role. Yet it seems to me Scanlon thinks most libertarians see themselves as deriving their political program straight from the value of liberty and that if he can show that libertarians don't actually do this, he's somehow struck a blow against the libertarian's self-conception. I can't see the force of this. 

I didn't gesture toward the "neo-classical liberalism" of Jerry Gaus and John Tomasi to suggest that even if there is no way to justify a program of free markets and limited government in terms of "an independent idea of liberty," there may yet be some justification "on broader grounds." I pointed to Gaus and Tomasi to suggest that however Scanlon thinks liberal institutions are justified, a program of free markets and limited government will be part of the general liberal program if the liberties accorded special protection in liberal regimes include robust economic liberties. The neo-classical liberal argument is that there is no principled basis for according special protection to political and civil liberties, while leaving unprotected various economic liberties.

The most interesting development in recent libertarian-ish political theorizing is the increasingly common abandonment of external natural rights or utilitarian criticisms of Rawls-style contractualist liberalism for a defense of the priority of economic liberties on contractualist grounds. I wish I had reserved more space in my short reply to make this argument more explicitly, because this is where the action is. 

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
  • The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
  • The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."

How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

​'The time is now' for cryptocurrencies, PayPal CEO says

Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?

Technology & Innovation
  • In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
  • Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
  • While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Keep reading Show less

"Clean meat" approved for sale in Singapore

Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.

Credit: Adobe Stock / Big Think
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Singapore has become the first country to approve the sale of a lab-grown meat product.
  • Eat Just, the company behind the product, will have a small-scale commercial launch of its chicken bites.
  • So-called "clean meats" may reduce our reliance on livestock farming, which kills billions of animals worldwide every year.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast