First Freedom


Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order, by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, La Salle, III.: Open Court, 268 pages, $49.95/$24.95 paper

Almost 20 years ago, Robert Nozick began his book Anarchy, State and Utopia with the resounding assertion that "individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating those rights)." Since then, legions of philosophers have stepped forth to answer the obvious question: Exactly why do individuals have rights?

The latest to submit a detailed answer are Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, both of whom have backgrounds as followers (and exegetes) of the thought of Ayn Rand and are now professors of philosophy at soberly Catholic universities, where discussions of what it means to be a human being (or even what it means just to be) are not laughed out of the faculty lounge. In Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order, the authors attempt to ground a defense of (classical) liberal values in the tradition of inquiry initiated by Aristotle.

That seems to be quite a challenge, given that Aristotle himself, apart from a few lines critical of Plato's proposals for communism and the abolition of property, was in general either hostile to or unaware of (understandable, given the times) most of the principal elements of classical-liberal political thought, among them: cosmopolitanism, individual rights that can be asserted against the state, freedom of trade and commerce, the distinction between society and the state, pluralism, diversity, and toleration of non-coercive behavior and minorities. Rasmussen and Den Uyl make it clear that they don't intend to defend Aristotle's conclusions about political morality. Rather, they draw upon his overall philosophy for tools of analysis and important insights into human life.

In seeking to generate moral obligation, or to solve the traditional "is-ought" problem, Rasmussen and Den Uyl make the following claims, using Aristotle for inspiration:

1) Man has a nature, and the fundamental distinguishing feature of that nature is his (her) ability to "apprehend the world in conceptual terms."

2) "Remaining in existence as the sort of thing it is is the natural end or function of a being."

3) Therefore, "living rationally or intelligently is the natural end, function, or ergon [deed or work] of a human being."

On this they base their claim that "one ought to live in accordance with the requirements of one's nature." The argument so far is more than a bit confusing, because Rasmussen and Den Uyl claim that the obligation to live in accord with one's nature "does not require justification" but that we can "grasp the obligatory character of this ultimate prescriptive premise." If this amounts to saying that there is no demonstrative proof in answer to the person who asks "Why be moral?" a lot of ink was spilled getting there.

What is more fruitful and interesting than the attempt to "grasp" the nature of obligation is their use of Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia, or happiness in the sense of living well and fulfilling one's potential for goodness. The section dealing with eudaimonia, which they refer to as "flourishing," is the most interesting of the "Aristotelian" sections of the book.

Here they place great stress on what they refer to as "self-directedness" or "autonomy" as an element in the attainment of eudaimonia. Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics put it rather nicely: "It [eudaimonia] can be attained through some process of study or effort by all persons whose capacity for virtue has not been stunted or maimed….[I]t is better to be happy as a result of one's own exertions than by the gift of fortune…"

Rasmussen and Den Uyl use this insight of Aristotle's as the foundation for an entire case for recognition of individual rights and private property: first, by substituting "other people" for "fortune"; second, by showing how self-directedness as an essential element of eudaimonia requires the ability to interact with physical objects, hence the right to property. (Here they are treading on familiar ground already visited by the classical liberal Wilhelm von Humboldt and the not-so-liberal G. W. F. Hegel, both of whom stressed the role of productive work and interaction with the material world in developing human personality.)

By emphasizing the individuality of human beings Rasmussen and Den Uyl sidestep problems in older natural-law or natural-right traditions of the sort criticized by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies, according to which, having found the true fulfillment of man, we have only to impose it on everybody else. But, as Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue, "There is no such thing as the flourishing of 'man.' There is only the flourishing of individual men."

This flourishing of individuals as moral beings necessarily requires for each and every one of them that they enjoy self-directedness, for without autonomous action, humans could be "neither praised nor blamed." And in order for each and every one to enjoy self-directedness, they must enjoy a protected sphere of autonomy. This sphere is delimited by the concept and institution of rights, which create "a sphere of freedom" and "moral territory." As the farmer says in Robert Frost's poem, "Good fences make good neighbors," to which Rasmussen and Den Uyl add that individual rights make good fences.

Following up on that is a very useful discussion of why these rights must be basic, universal, negative, and absolute, and just what these requirements amount to. While very valuable, this section did not convince me of one of the authors' most important claims: that "it is true that one 'ought to respect another's basic right(s),' but the reason that restraint is due is not because of what I owe you, but because of my own principled commitment to human flourishing."

In other words, it is good for me that I not take your watch, and not simply (as is more easily demonstrated) good for you. It seemed to me, after several readings, that what Rasmussen and Den Uyl offered in support of this was the claim that basic moral rules must be universal to be truly moral rules, but that seems to be what they promised to demonstrate and not simply to restate.

When they reach the case for rights to property, they make some original contributions to the problem, most notably by applying "Austrian" economic insights to the problems of understanding ownership of resources. Building on Israel Kirzner's studies of entrepreneurship, they argue that resources (or wealth) are not simply given, but that they are brought into being and change with the perceptions, ideas, and plans of human beings. Oil in the ground was not wealth to a 17th-century farmer, but rather an occasional nuisance. It took the inventiveness and active perception of entrepreneurs to convert a nuisance into wealth.

Using this insight, the authors offer a novel answer to the problem of the so-called "Lockean proviso" that requires in acts of original acquisition that "enough and as good" be left for others: "[S]ince property is created or produced through an act of transformation, the Lockean Proviso is moot. For there can never be 'enough and as good' left for others if every action issues in a unique transformation."

Unfortunately, Rasmussen and Den Uyl tend to confuse two very important concepts from two different areas of inquiry: wealth and property. Wealth is an economic concept that refers to something that can generate a stream of (some kind of) income, but property is a legal concept referring to the protection accorded the acquisition, use, and transfer of scarce goods. Much of one's wealth as a merchant, for example, may be tied up in one's reputation or in an extensive network of contacts, but it is not clear that simply because they are forms of wealth that one's reputation (what others think of one) or one's network (the people whom one knows) can be considered to be property.

Despite many valuable insights, the book's biggest problem is that too many of the steps in the authors' argument are debatable, while the way in which they present their case seems to require that one agree with every step along the way in order to agree with their conclusions. By orienting themselves so much to the ancient natural-law tradition, they miss the main point of the modern natural-law tradition (which includes such venerable figures as Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, John Locke, and even David Hume), which was to refute the ever-present skeptics by providing a firm and unchallengeable foundation and progression for the arguments for justice.

This was found, not in an ethics of self-perfection, but in the common recognition that, in Pufendorf's words: "In common with all living things which have a sense of themselves, man holds nothing more dear than himself, he studies in every way to preserve himself, he strives to acquire what seems good to him and to repel what seems bad to him….Men are not all moved by one simply uniform desire, but by a multiplicity of desires variously combined….For these reasons careful regulation and control are needed to keep them from coming into conflict with each other….in order to be safe, it is necessary for him to be sociable; that is to join forces with men like himself and so conduct himself towards them that they are not given even a plausible excuse for harming him, but rather become willing to preserve and promote his advantages."

This modern natural-law tradition is clearly aimed at responding to the skeptic who points to the variety of social orders all over the world and demands a justification for any one of them. The very same skeptic, it seems to me, will point out that an argument that rests on a metaphysical biology a few thousand years out of date (or at least subject to strong objections from contemporary biology) is less than convincing and that having to assent to this or that controversial interpretation of Aristotle in order to proceed to the conclusion lessens the likelihood of intellectual conviction.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl realize that their approach differs greatly from most classical-liberal political theory, as they clearly note in their conclusion: "The arguments of the preceding chapters indicate our agreement with modern political philosophy that social cooperation does not depend upon the realization of moral perfection. But instead of denying the meaningfulness of a concept like moral perfection, and instead of seeing liberty and natural rights as merely a mechanism for solving the problem of conflict, we have sought to give liberty moral significance by showing that the natural right to liberty is a social and political condition necessary for the possibility of moral perfection."

In this light, Liberty and Nature would be best appreciated, not as a substitute for the arguments of Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, and Hume, but rather as a useful supplement to them, offering yet another reason for valuing liberty: "It is better to be happy as a result of one's own exertions than by the gift of fortune." Or through the coercive intervention of others.

Tom G. Palmer is the editor of Humane Studies Review.