Liberty Matters

Jan Narveson’s Comment on Eric Mack


Eric Mack is right to think that we have a serious philosophical disagreement on the matter of the foundations of rights. We are in agreement (and everybody else is too, I hope!) that rights are natural in the sense that they aren't a matter of what some legislature or king decrees, but stem from how people are, how they relate to each other and their environment. He characterizes my counterview as: “The wrongness of imposing those sorts of treatment“ is “contingent on the agent having prudential reasons or reasons of benevolence for eschewing those kinds of treatment.” I admit that I don't see how this could not be so. Why would we care about rights if the things they protected for us were things that just didn't matter to us? Eric says that persons “matter.” As a moral proposition, I agree: But matter how? On his view (or Kant’s comparable one), it seems that other people “mattering” is a fact about all of us. If it were so, why do some people kill others or take their stuff? I don’t see how the answer could be anything other than that morality is interpersonal -- it's the forming and inculcating of interpersonally authoritative rules of behavior. I can’t expect you to respect me and what matters to me if I won't in turn respect you and what matters to you. If that isn’t enough (and apparently for some it isn’t) to induce us both to make and keep the commitments of morality, then we are reduced to war -- and telling our enemies that they are bad people while they’re at it, though true, isn’t going to do any good unless there is some reason (that they can understand) why people who do the sorts of things they are doing are rationally regarded as bad.
It is not a “problem” with the social-contract view that while cooperation is better for all, noncooperation is often better for each. The fact that general noncooperation is far worse for everyone, including the noncooperating agent, tells us a lot -- in the end, I think, everything. It explains both why people often do evil and why we need to redouble our efforts to see to it that they don’t. But it does not in the least impugn that what they are doing is indeed wrong -- for wrongness is a matter of acting against rationally imposed rules for all. It not only doesn't need to be anything else, but it really can’t be.