Friday, 23 January 2015

My disquiet at obligation to others without liberty

(Neil's Note: Hot off the press, this one.)

This essay is a response to D.J. (David) Webb’s “My disquiet at liberty without obligation to others.” That piece can be found at>

Obligation and liberty

David is bothered by a view of liberty that some profess, which he describes as “tossing aside all obligations to one another.” I share his disquiet. And so, I suspect, would almost anyone who identifies as liberal or libertarian. Indeed, it is amply clear to me that every human being has certain obligations or duties to others. And that to meet those is the sine qua non of civilized behaviour.

What I don’t find so easy, however, is to grasp what David thinks those specific obligations should be. He seems to suggest that they include subscribing to the Christian religion; and, even, to the Anglican church. Furthermore, he promotes a traditionalist – some might say blimpish – view on its moral teachings. I certainly can’t agree with his positions here.

Indeed, at another level I find David’s view rather disturbing. If a society or culture doesn’t offer the freedom to reject Christianity in general or the Anglican church in particular, there can be no religious freedom there. So, how liberal is it likely to be in other areas? Not very, I think.

What David seems to be prescribing for us, as his antidote to liberty without obligation to others, is obligation to others without liberty. And that is something I cannot accept. Indeed, I regard “obligation to others without liberty” as a decent definition of the word “slavery.”

Civil society and culture

David’s essay is about the conditions for a civil society. That is, for a society whose purpose is to enable people to live together in tranquillity and justice, while maximizing freedom and prosperity.

He says, at the very start, that he views “a common culture as vital to any sort of functioning society.” I can agree with this, almost – but not quite. For me, what is vital to a functional civilization is a common cultural core, or set of ethical obligations which apply to all. But I take the view that this common core must be the minimum needed to achieve the purpose of civil society. That is what makes me identify myself as a minarchist.

Furthermore, I see the great majority of these core obligations as being negative ones. That is, they impose a duty to refrain from certain conduct. Only a very few of them can impose any positive mandate for action.

If England were a civil society – it isn’t, but if it were – then I’d see no reason at all for something as restrictive as Anglicanism to be part of its core ethic. No more reason, indeed, than for it to be impossible for anyone to be English who doesn’t drink warm beer! In contrast, a good candidate to be part of the core morality is the libertarian non-aggression obligation. I’ll paraphrase this, as it often seems to be put forward, as: “Thou shalt not commit physical aggressions against others.”

Personally, I don’t think the non-aggression obligation (or principle) cuts enough ice to make a viable core morality. And particularly not on its own, as our “thin” libertarian friends seem to think it can. For what it’s worth, I’ve made my own stab at constructing such a core. I’ve put it on line at (It’s about 2,800 words.)

My vision of civil society

My vision for a civil society is of a common moral core, surrounded by different sets of customs for different groups. Those who want to follow a particular religion, for example, may worship in whatever way they wish, as long as they don’t violate the core morality. But they don’t have any right to force their religion on others. I call this Neil’s First Precept of Religion: “If you let me have my religion (or lack of it), I’ll let you have yours.”

A similar principle will apply in other aspects of life, too. For example, socialists have a right to live in socialist communes if they wish. Free marketeers have a right to live in free market ones. Libertarians have a right to live in libertarian communes, and libertines in libertine ones. But no-one has the right to impose their particular tastes on others. In this way each and every one of us, through meeting our core obligations to others, acquires the freedom and right to live in all other respects in our own way.

The state

I do, however, have another fundamental difficulty with David’s essay. He seems to think of a state as a natural and necessary part of any civil society. He only questions how far the state needs to intervene. I disagree. I regard the political state – which I’m, tentatively, moving towards defining as “the apparatus which enforces the hegemony of a ruling élite” – as an unmitigable evil, totally incompatible with civil society.

Let’s not forget that the Westphalian nation state is a hold-over from pre-Enlightenment times. Back then, the divine right of kings to rule over others was considered the norm, and John Locke was yet a boy. But now, think of the progress which we humans have made over these 350+ years in science, technology, the world economy and much else. That our political institutions have failed to move forward in sync with our general progress is, I think, a major cause of what ails humanity today. The state is way past its last use by date; and we’re all suffering the smell.

Individualism and collectivism

But there is more yet for me to disagree with in David’s essay. He makes some very negative comments about individualism. As an individualist myself – and I think of myself as more an individualist than a libertarian! – I do feel I must respond to these.

First, David seems not to understand what individualism is. The best definition of the word I can find comes from Webster’s: “(2) the conception that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals.” Individualism is not, as David suggests, a particular moral code. That’s a very loose use of the word. And even if it were so construed, such a code would be further from “every man for himself” – which, I think, is likely the moral view David is actually criticizing – than is chalk from milk.

The essence of individualism is a focus on the individual. It is a way of thinking, which puts the human individual at centre stage. It views ethical codes and political structures in terms of how they affect each individual, and of how they benefit and what they cost each individual. It views freedom and obligation to others, not as antagonistic, but as two sides of the same coin. Thus, individualism and (minarchist) libertarianism are entirely compatible.

And when David says that individualism is “only relevant to a hermit,” I think he’s again wrong. The individualist does, very much, recognize that people can gain mutual benefit by associating with each other. Individualism even allows for an ideal of the public good in a society. As John Locke expressed it so well: “the good of every particular member of that society, as far as by common rules it can be provided for.”

Individualism, indeed, is the arch enemy of collectivism. It opposes the evil way of thinking that sees society, the group or the state as everything, and the individual as nothing. Because of this, it is easy to see why leftists and other statists like to (deliberately) misconstrue what individualism is. Indeed, they often describe it in much the same terms that David has used here. I’m well inured to leftists spouting such rhetoric; it’s part of what they do. But a conservative, I think, really should know better.

The individual and the family

In my view, David makes another error when he says: “The unit of society is therefore, not individuals, but families.” This ignores the fact that families consist of individuals. And that in the wider world, for example in the economy, in most cases it is individuals (and societies such as companies) who interact with each other, rather than families.

Furthermore, when I list social units in order of increasing size, I find that the individual and the family are not even next to each other. There is a level in between the individual and the family; the partnership. Partnerships may be, but are not necessarily, created to found or to bring up a family, or both. A good modern example of a non-family partnership is so called gay marriage.

In conclusion

Though I’ve found a lot to disagree with in David’s essay, I do recognize that libertarians and conservatives, radicals and traditionalists, are ultimately all in the same boat. Along, if I’m not hugely mistaken, with all other well meaning, honest and naturally productive people.

We all suffer the predations of a common enemy; the violent, dishonest, immoral, lying, thieving, meddling, out of date political state. And I think that to find and to know the areas in which we can agree, and to illuminate and make clear the areas where we disagree and the reasons why, are good things to be doing in the current phase of the struggle for human liberty.

I will close with a quote, put into the mouth of Gandalf by J.R.R.Tolkien: “We are all friends here. Or should be; for the laughter of Mordor will be our only reward, if we quarrel.”

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