Your Child or 20 Ethiopians?


Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community, by Loren Lomasky, New York: Oxford University Press, 272 pages, $24.95

The publication of Loren Lomasky's Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community is an important event in the philosophical development of classical liberal theory. To my delight and dismay, the book is so good that no right-minded philosophical reviewer will escape twinges (to put it mildly) of professional jealousy.

Lomasky deals with three complexly related questions. On what grounds can a candidate for rights be said to have rights? What rights does a successful candidate have? And who are the rights holders? The answers themselves are found in inquiries about the nature of practical reason, the structure of moral values, the role of rights as guardians of value, and the capacity of people to respect rights.

But this formidable characterization should not discourage nonprofessional readers. Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community is readable, entertaining, and far too full of moral truths to be confined to the artificial world of the academic.

Lomasky's argument begins and proceeds in opposition to moral impersonalism. According to the impersonalist, a condition is morally valuable because of the type of condition it is. If the health of my children is valuable, it is because the health of children as such is valuable. It is not because they are my children that their well-being is morally important and worthy of pursuit. I may personally care more for my children because they are mine. But, according to impersonalism, it would be arbitrary and irrational to say that their health is more valuable than the health of children in Ethiopia.

If I have $10,000 to spend either on a life-saving operation for my child or life-saving famine relief for 20 children in Ethiopia, it is grossly irrational and arbitrary to favor my child with the operation—as though an Ethiopian child is worth less than one-twentieth of my child! A good impersonalist must always believe that his own specific preferences, values, and plans are quite literally "nothing special."

But Lomasky asks us to consider, in contrast, what sort of beings we typically are. We are project pursuers. Each of us, to a greater or lesser extent, structures his or her own life on the basis of centrally held values, commitments, and ambitions.

Yet project pursuit, Lomasky observes, requires that the pursuer take his commitment to particular projects to have moral significance. "Project pursuit is…inconceivable apart from a frankly partial attachment to one's most cherished ends. An individual's projects provide him with a personal…standard of value to choose his actions by."

The project pursuer does not think that others must take his projects to be special. Yet he must ascribe real value to his projects and their fruition—personal value, value that provides a special reason for this project pursuer to act. Through commitment to personal projects, we acquire and sustain the sort of personal identity that distinguishes most of us from the dissociated psychopath. Impersonalism represents an "evaluational socialism" that would be far more costly to individuals than its economic cousin. For the price to be paid for moral impersonalism "is the metaphysical breakdown of the person."

Rights come into the picture because project pursuers inhabit a common world and thus need principles demarcating how others may and may not be treated in the course of pursuing projects. Lomasky argues that what project pursuers primarily need from all others is noninterference. And it is rational for an individual to adopt noninterference with others on the condition that others adopt noninterference with him.

But won't the truly rational individual continually seek to cheat relative to this scheme of mutual forbearance, thereby gaining from others' restraint while avoiding the costs of reciprocity? And won't each individual's knowledge that others are prepared to cheat undercut the trust and coordination needed to make the adoption of the scheme rational for anybody?

Lomasky's answer is that "it is a mistake to commence political analysis with a…scenario in which each individual is entirely consumed by his own conceptions of value-for-himself and regards others only as obstacles to his own designs." Enough people diverge sufficiently from narrow egoism, and are seen as so diverging, that the mutual trust and coordination needed for the rational reciprocal recognition of rights can arise.

Basic rights, then, can be seen to emerge as the unintended product of rational accommodations among countless pairs of project pursuers. These basic rights are "those moral constraints that impose minimal demands on the forbearance of others such that individuals can pursue projects amidst a world of similar beings, each with his own life to lead, and each owing the same measure of respect to others that they owe to him."

Basic rights, according to Lomasky, actually go beyond rights to forbearance. Along with the primary liberty, right to noninterference, there is a modest welfare right to the minimum or near-minimum conditions for survival as a project pursuer. Lomasky argues that rational individuals recognize that there is "no assurance that liberty will universally guarantee to each person the requisites for satisfactory prospects of project pursuit"; they are also concerned about their own well-being and are capable of being moved by the plight of others. Hence, they will include such a "safety net" in the constitution of their moral universe.

Nevertheless, Lomasky emphasizes the conditional character of this safety net. For adult project pursuers, it comes into play only on the rare occasions in an economically free society when, through no fault of their own, individuals need some state-supplied support in order to remain project pursuers. And Lomasky's assertion of this conditional right occurs within a vigorous defense of classical liberalism and its emphasis on liberty versus welfare liberalism.

Project pursuers have certain basic rights because of their mutual recognition as project pursuers. But Lomasky maintains that some others may also have basic rights through a sort of moral piggybacking on the primary rights holders.

A young child has basic rights, because to injure or kill it is to deprive a member of our moral community of a condition that is valuable to the child in its path to being a project pursuer. Mentally defective adults will never be project pursuers. Yet they possess basic rights because they are permanent children. We cannot, without costly violence to our normal moral concepts and dispositions, mark off these children for lesser concern than rights-possessing regular children. Nonhuman animals, however, are neither project pursuers nor the piggybacking children of project pursuers. Hence, while not moral zeros, they lack rights.

In the end Lomasky returns to the nature of value. At issue is the ancient dispute between value subjectivism and value objectivism. Does being desired make something valuable? Or does the objective value of goals make them worthy of pursuit and make the desire for them rational?

Lomasky argues forcefully for value objectivism. The goodness of some goal cannot be created by the mere desire for it. For it to be rational to fulfill a project, reason must be able to recognize the value of what is projected. Thus Lomasky concludes that value objectivism must underlie any adequate account of rationality and rational morality.

Unfortunately, he identifies the dispute between the subjectivist and the objectivist with the dispute between the personalist and impersonalist conception of value. This is fostered, in large part, by his earlier explication of personal value in terms of persons' special commitments and chosen projects. From this, he misinterprets the argument for value objectivism as an argument for the conclusion that, ultimately, impersonal value must stand behind and justify our commitments and projects.

More than he seems to realize, and despite attempts at containment, this conclusion about impersonal value threatens the whole of Lomasky's structure. For if the real bedrock value is impersonal, the demand that each of us serve it may be strong enough to justify the surrender of our project pursuit. If the impersonal value of children's health in general is what gives me a good reason to fund my child's operation, won't I have an even more compelling reason to bypass my child and donate the funds to famine relief, thereby saving many children instead of one? And may I not, in the name of impersonal value, even be required to do so?

Project pursuit and even personal identity may be just a personal indulgence that detracts from service to depersonalized value. Basic rights, so elegantly and powerfully defended through most of this book, may turn out simply to be barriers to true value thrown up by those unwilling to surrender their idiosyncratic preferences.

Eric Mack is a philosophy professor at Tulane University.