Liberty Matters

Eric Mack’s Comment on Jan Narveson 2


Jan Narveson provides a powerful response to my claim (on behalf of natural-rights theory) that one has reasons to be circumspect in one’s treatment of others that are not reasons of prudence or benevolence. Jan’s response is that there are things that matter to one and things that matter to others and surely this exhausts everything that matters. If one’s reasons for action or forbearance derive from what matters, then all one’s reasons must be reasons of prudence or reasons of benevolence. Jan’s response is powerful because, at least for a moment, it is difficult to say what else matters.
Fortunately, I just watched a great documentary on the left-wing Current channel entitled Marijuana Outlaws, about folks growing marijuana in northern California – entirely, of course, for the legal medical marijuana market. These were all more or less counterculture people who have not had the friendliest past relationships with law enforcement. Because they don’t know what to expect from the maze of law enforcement agencies – especially since they may be accused of supplying marijuana to nonmedical consumers – they grow their crops in very remote places. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is that their crops can readily be stolen just as they are about to be harvested.

The last segment of the show involved interviews with growers whose crops had just been stolen. What was striking was the nature of their condemnation of what had been done to them. They all clearly believed that they had been wronged precisely because of the labor, effort, attention, and energy that they have devoted to their crops. Of course, they did not like ending up with $70,000 or $80,000 less income than they expected. They were not happy about that financial loss. Still, a great deal of what mattered to them was that they have been treated in a way that in itself was unacceptable. Their view was that human beings don’t (i.e., shouldn’t) go around taking other people’s hard-earned stuff. There is something wrong with people who do treat others in these ways. (One grower said the thieves were “shits”; another said the thieves were creating “bad karma” that would eventually do them in.)

So everything that matters matters to someone. But one sort of thing that matters to people is not being treated in certain ways (above and beyond the consequences of being treated in those ways) and not themselves treating others in those ways. (The growers also talked about how much it mattered to them that their rights over their land be respected and how much it mattered to them that they respect others’ land rights.) I think our view that there are certain constraints we ought to abide by in our interaction with others and that they ought to abide by in their conduct toward us is too deep to be a product of any sort of ends-oriented deliberation about what rule-compliance will be advantageous to oneself or to everyone.

Jan is right, of course, that for some people, being circumspect in the treatment of others does not in fact matter. Nothing I have said in this conversation shows that these people nevertheless have reason to be circumspect – though I think the sort of considerations Locke lines up do combine to provide reasons not to act in ways that interfere with others’ pursuing their own ends. In some of my own essays, I have tried to lay out why any reasonable moral code has to contain important deontic restrictions.[1] All of that is a much bigger conversation.


[1] See “Prerogatives, Restrictions, and Rights,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol.22 no.1 (Winter 2005) 357-93, and “Individualism and Libertarian Rights,” in Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy, edited by John Christman and Thomas Cristiano (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 121-36.