Notes From Babel

If a Kitten Ever Got the Chance, He’d Eat You and Everyone You Care About

with 2 comments

A recent post at Positive Liberty referred me to this one I missed a couple years back, whose title practically makes it impossible not to read on.  The topic—the libertarian view on animal rights and animal cruelty—was too good for me to pass up without commenting on my befuddlement over libertarians’ repressed and awkward relationship with culture and morality.  As Jason Kuznicki put it:

I know I won’t make any friends by saying this, but I am afraid that the same also applies if I want to raise dogs to fight one another. I am disgusted by the practice, and I would never watch a dogfight. But I do not think it should be illegal. Once we start making “disgust” and “I wouldn’t do it” into the basis of criminal law, we might as well outlaw sodomy. And Protestantism.*

Why in blazes not?  Libertarians’ problem is their unjustified assumption that human beings can neatly compartmentalize law and culture, and/or that culture is insignificant.  We can’t, and it isn’t.  As Richard John Neuhaus put it:

Whatever else law may be, it is a human enterprise in response to human behavior, and human behavior is stubbornly entangled with beliefs about right and wrong. Law that is recognized as legitimate is there¬fore related to the larger universe of moral discourse that helps shape human behavior. In short, if law is not also a moral enterprise, it is without legitimacy or binding force.

(Emphasis added.)  Libertarians are perennially hopeful that they can shepherd Western man to the end of the long road begun at the Enlightenment—the nirvana in which their morality is shared by all.  That morality, of course, is that moral injury is not legitimate injury and thus of no legitimate political concern, and that further justification for an act neither can nor need be demonstrated beyond that its perpetrators consented to do it.

Jefferson is frequently offered in support of this view: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  It follows from this, the argument then goes, that the same is true of other moral choices that do not result in harm to unconsenting third parties.

But consent cannot authorize an act that is intrinsically immoral.  Suicide is consensual by very definition, yet supremely immoral.  The Nazi regime was brought to power through the consent of the governed.  There is nothing preventing incestual or polygamous relationships from being consensual.  Yet there is no issue in condemning all these as immoral.

Not all libertarians take the Declaration’s guarantee of the right of each man to pursue happiness as an invitation to moral relativism (though many do, knowingly or not).  Judging from this single article, I can’t tell which type Kuznicki is. He appears to find something repugnant about Michael Vick and animal cruelty in general, though he also seems a bit squeamish of the fact since he’s unable to make out an abstract theory of animal rights in which to ground his nagging scruples.  When he says, “Even I find his actions repugnant, and I think he had a perfect right to do them,” we might give him the benefit of the doubt and take him as saying that he believes Michael Vick’s actions were objectively repugnant, and yet even that is not grounds for outlawing them.  Kuznicki goes on:

Why the law needs to get involved, I really don’t understand. If the law were to act here in any fair or consistent way, it would also be forced to destroy a lot of other uses for animals that we mostly find unobjectionable. For every argument you make against foie gras or dogfighting — both practices of longstanding tradition — someone else can come along an make what’s probably an a fortiori case against industrial farming, which obviously involves more pain to more animals, which is of very recent institution, and which bothers relatively few.

The answer to this is that one of democracy’s attributes is its liberation from the confinement of rigorous consistency.  This is why we can select two as the magic upper barrier for the number of marriage participants without any particular reason (as I’ve explained here, here, and here).  The so-called traditional definition of marriage is concededly arbitrary.  But so also would be the proposed revision.  Why limit the number to two?  Why limit the participants to non-relatives?  At some point, subjecting these concerns to strict, abstract logic, we would be forced to  just dump the whole institution.  Fine, say many libertarians, over-concerned with reducing all manner of human life to mathematical proof.  But this is not fine with the vast majority.  And it never will be, if I may offer a prognostication.  A successful polity is one of virtuous citizens, eager to come to its service.  This is unlikely to happen when the polity reflects the values of no citizen.

If we are forced to hold ourselves to consistency and rationality in the strictest, most absolute sense, we will have left no room for being human.  We depend on our innate moral sense to help us determine which beliefs are conclusions for whose support we must insist on the rigorous application of reason and evidence, and which beliefs are premises without much of the rest of our belief system becomes unintelligible.

Libertarianism ultimately suggests that human flourishing, to which end political society is ordered, is a solitary endeavor.  At the very least, it suggests that we have nothing to gain by being made to grapple with the sensibilities of other individuals in our communities.

It is curious that Kuznicki would choose animal cruelty for his example. Those who care for animals—even those who don’t—feel genuine anguish, a moral pain, at stories and images of animals being beaten, abused, mistreated.  Though I have not taken the plunge into vegetarianism, I rarely get through a meal without it occurring to me how the animal probably suffered greatly before its end.  And things are relatively humane in our country.  I came across a video on the web some time back, involving a worker dipping one terrified, live cat after another into a vat of boiling oil.  Apparently it is easier than killing them first, and it makes the fur come off easier.  The image has haunted me ever since.  Even recalling it causes sincere sadness and moral anguish.  It makes me more willing to tolerate having to share space with our own four cats.

You can damn well bet I’d vote to criminalize such repugnant practices.  Libertarians wouldn’t because, if they did, it’d undermine their position of isolation from the rest of society around them.  There must be great satisfaction in following that doctrine to its end, given how sad and cruel it often is.

* Protestantism?  Actually, Kuznicki explains this a bit further here, suggesting that the First Amendment’s ban on laws respecting an establishment of religion applies to anything that might be called morals legislation.  No further explication is provided, unfortunately.  Like libertarianism’s core moral position—that aside from prohibitions on picking my pocket or breaking my leg, no laws are valid—if the idea doesn’t intrinsically tickle your fancy, there is little else to give you.  “C’mon, man. Don’t you get it?  Please, just get it, man.”

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2 Responses

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  1. Why in blazes not?

    Because if we make moral outrage a legitimate cause of state action, then there are literally no illegitimate causes of state action.

    Not only do we get the freedom (!) from rigorous consistency, as you put it, but we find ourselves unable ever to say no to government power — this, surely, is too much, even for non-libertarians.

    What critique could you ever make of the state, when its action was backed by the moral outrage of the voters? We are left in the end with no higher law than “a democracy may do whatever it wishes.”

    Practically, this may well be true. Ethically, it’s less defensible.

    Not all libertarians take the Declaration’s guarantee of the right of each man to pursue happiness as an invitation to moral relativism (though many do, knowingly or not). Judging from this single article, I can’t tell which type Kuznicki is. He appears to find something repugnant about Michael Vick and animal cruelty in general, though he also seems a bit squeamish of the fact since he’s unable to make out an abstract theory of animal rights in which to ground his nagging scruples.

    I do find something repugnant about animal cruelty, but with two caveats:

    First, I can’t easily work this repugnance into a coherent system with either my other ethical beliefs, or with my observed habits and practices. It’s a loose end for me, and I don’t fully know what to make of it. I’d thought that my most recent post made this clear.

    Second, I recognize that repugnance is a poor guide to legislation.

    Far from thinking that I have reduced all of human life to “mathematical proof,” on the contrary, I am convinced that this hasn’t been done. I strongly doubt that it ever can be. We must therefore be cautious when we give the government new powers.

    It is curious that Kuznicki would choose animal cruelty for his example.

    I didn’t, actually. I was asked by a friend what I thought about the topic, and so I responded.

    Jason Kuznicki

    December 14, 2009 at 9:44 am

  2. Jason,
    Thanks for your comments.

    I disagree with your suggestion that making “moral outrage a legitimate cause of state action” means there would be “no illegitimate causes of state action.” There is always a balancing that occurs with all sorts of legislation, moral or otherwise.

    It is no objection to the soundness of a political system that certain of its members will disagree with the laws. Some will disagree with our country’s (conservative) moral position with respect to marriage. Some with disagree with its (libertarian) position on abortion. With respect to the former, a rigorous debate over whether the current state of affairs is the right one and whether it should change is happening among all citizens of the several states. With respect to the latter, the debate is limited to nine lawyers. Reading our Constitution as prohibiting the people from shaping the moral aspect of their culture through law—just as they do with other aspects of culture—because it might lead to some undesirable legislation is just a pre-emptive strike: it is to impose a particular moral regime that prevents others from seeking to impose any aspect of their own.

    I can’t see how anyone could be so possessed with the fear that their fellow citizens might express moral views through law that they would conclude libertarianism is the only sensible answer. Do Americans’ moral legislation—the “war on drugs,” vice taxes, traditional marriage, prohibitions on animal cruelty, keeping the “seven dirty words” off TV and radio, etc.—really suggest that we have reached such a degenerate state of totalitarianism that we have to insist our Constitution be read to outlaw the exercise of democratic will in these areas? (It would seem particularly odd to suggest this with respect to animal rights, and the cruelty is so ghastly, that taking a hard-line ideological position against the cause I think does libertarianism a disservice. This is what I meant when saying it was a curious example.)

    It’s not to say I don’t appreciate libertarianism’s rigor. I certainly do—which I why I spent quite a bit of time thinking and reading and writing about it. And I am often inclined to withhold my individual support from certain moral legislation, even if I personally agree with it, out of regard for the coercive impact of enshrining it in our law. But I just do not see categorically censuring or outlawing morals as a basis for legislation. As David Hume said, “in all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty, and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest.” For a law to have a “rational basis,” after all, simply means it is a rational means to achieving some end rooted in the desires, the passions, the morals of the people. As Hume noted, “reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions.”

    Tim Kowal

    December 14, 2009 at 10:45 pm


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