Liberty Matters

Self-Ownership, Duty, and Prudence

Before I get back to the business of ganging up on our mutual friend Nick Buccola, I want to commend him again for his original essay and for his no-less-able and thought-provoking rejoinder to the first round of comments.
George Smith asked him to expand on the philosophic question of a moral duty to defend others' rights in Douglass, and Professor Knowles and I asked for his further reflections on the more political matter of Douglass's prudence. I trust I commit no trespass on another's territory if I begin by pressing a bit further the question of moral duty, which I raised in passing in my first set of comments.
To my mind, it is beyond doubt that Buccola interprets Douglass correctly in the matter of a duty to defend others' natural rights. Douglass almost certainly exaggerated, but he was attesting to no mere personal distinction when he told an 1891 interviewer, "Duty has been the moving power that influenced all my actions during all the years of my life."[49] He certainly believed that rights-bearing persons have a moral duty, where prudence allows, to defend not only their own, but other persons', rights.
The difficult question, however, concerns not the fact that Douglass held this view, but rather the grounds for it. This was the question I lightly raised in the first round, and I take this to be the basic question that Smith is raising also. What is interesting here is that Smith's objection to Douglass's view, along with my own question, rests on a premise that Douglass himself emphatically affirmed as the basis for natural rights. This is the premise, Douglass says, that "entirely took possession of me, even in childhood": "Every man is the original, natural, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body."[50]
So the question is: if self-ownership is the basis of natural rights, how can we derive a principle of positive natural duty from that basis? It is easy to see, as Smith notes, how that premise generates a negative duty to forbear infringing the rights of other persons. But how can there be a positive duty to assist or defend others? Would not such a duty amount to a natural claim upon the labor or actions of others—to a degree, a natural ownership of the labor of others—and if so, how could that square with Douglass's idea of the foundation of natural rights?
I might add this: to press a question of this depth and difficulty in the present forum is in some sense unfair, given that it would require a lengthy volume to answer it fully. I press it here, however, because although I took a crack at answering it in my own book on Douglass (Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism), it's a question that continues to give me difficulty, and I'd be interested in Buccola's thoughts on it.
(I add parenthetically, in response to a private suggestion put forward by David Hart, that here is one source in the formation of Douglass's thinking about natural rights. His language of self-ownership, along with his descriptions of slavery, is unmistakably the language of John Locke. Whether Douglass read Locke directly I have never been able to ascertain, but if not, he must have picked up Lockean ideas from his abolitionist colleagues. There are certainly other important sources of his thinking, but Locke is a foundational one.)
Now as to the matter of prudence: responding to my concern about the rule of law, Buccola observes that my criterion of prudence differs from Douglass's criterion. I think he's right about that, but I take that fact to be indicative of the defect in Douglass's prudence that I was charging in round one.
Let's start from the premise that seems to be Douglass's premise: that prudence dictates the course of action best calculated to secure the natural rights of individual fugitives and in the process to deter would-be kidnappers in the future. So far so good. But how much success could Douglass expect to have in this enterprise, relying on the efforts of the relatively small minority of abolitionists willing to assist fugitives in their liberation—a task scarcely less dangerous for them than the recapture of fugitives was for the slave hunters? How far would the successes he and his collaborators were able to achieve in this business contribute to the larger objective of abolishing slavery itself?
In raising such questions, I don't mean that Douglass should have refrained from his efforts to assist fugitives. I only mean that when he considered the prudence of doing so, his own ultimate objective should have moved him to consider that abolition could not be accomplished by abolitionists alone; they needed the assistance of law, backed by federal power, to accomplish it, and they therefore needed to expand the class of public officials (hence also of voters) allied with them, which they could only do by cultivating a reputation of general respect for the law.
As Douglass would have learned from Locke as well as other sources, the state of nature among human beings contains a whole universe of potential kidnappers and other sorts of rights violators, and the only sure means of deterring or obstructing them is constitutional government. Without that, there is only the question of who has the superior power. In considering his acts of resistance, prudence required of Douglass to think of the conditions of his ultimate or longer-term objectives as well as his nearer-term ones.
For the present, I will let that stand as my response also to the rejoinder concerning John Brown. I have more to say on that subject, but I will leave that for the next posting.
[49.] Douglass, "Duty Has Been the Moving Power in My Life," July 12, 1891, Douglass Papers, Series One, vol. 5, 458.
[50.] Douglass Papers, vol. 4, 42 (emphasis original).