on March 12, 2016
Loren Lomasky's title tells us to expect a theory of rights. His acknowledgments to the Reason Foundation and the Liberty Fund tell us to expect a theory with a libertarian flavor. We are not disappointed; for the most part "Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community" defends Nozickian orthodoxy concerning individual rights, distributive justice, and the minimal state. Committed libertarians will therefore find much here to their liking. But the book is primarily intended not to preach to the faithful but to convert the rest of us. Those who found Nozick entertaining but unconvincing might profit from trying Lomasky. Aside from occasional lapses into cuteness (it seems to be a libertarian disease) and declamation or innuendo, Lomasky's defense of his own convictions is appealingly modest and his treatment of contrary views respectful and fair-minded.
Although the distinction is not highlighted, Lomasky's case for a libertarian rights theory has both an analytic and a substantive side. On Lomasky's favored conception, rights impose constraints on the pursuit of goals by defining protected spheres within which individuals have control over central aspects of their lives. Although this is a plausible picture of the normative function of rights, it is not a uniquely libertarian one, for socialists can accept it just as readily. (It is not always clear that Lomasky understands this; sometimes he seems to think that the very nature of rights supports a libertarian political morality.) The distinctive libertarian turn takes the form of two substantive theses about the holders of rights (individuals rather than collectivities) and the nature of the rights they hold (negative rather than positive). Lomasky defends the party line on the former and only gives slightly and grudgingly on the second. His route to these conclusions begins with the familiar liberal picture of individuals as project pursuers. Whether this is the best (or only) place to start, and whether this starting point will get one to a libertarian destination -- these are the large questions left open even by Lomasky's lengthy and careful argument. But whether his defense of libertarianism ultimately succeeds or not, it is at least clear how it is intended to go. For this Lomasky's readers, even those who remain unconvinced, will thank him. They will also benefit from his treatment of two topics relatively neglected by liberals and libertarians alike: nonparadigm right-holders, such as children and the handicapped, and the value of life.
The appeal of Lomasky's book is unfortunately marred by two gratuitous stylistic choices: the exclusive use of masculine nouns and pronouns in generic contexts and reference to the handicapped as "defective human beings." The book also could use a thorough proofreading.
on June 15, 2000
In this excellent volume, Loren Lomasky offers a new argument for libertarian "basic rights" that may well be the sort of thing Ayn Rand had in mind but failed to execute competently and intelligibly. And it is brilliantly argued. My sole major objection concerns not what is there, but what is missing.
Lomasky differentiates between "univalent" and "multivalent" theories of rights -- the former being those that single out one feature that qualifies certain beings as rights-bearers, the latter allowing for more than one feature that might do so. His own theory is technically "multivalent" but depends fundamentally on just one feature: the ability to "pursue projects" -- i.e. to have aims and ends that have a specially motivating status for oneself because they are one's own.
That human beings are "project pursuers" is, for Lomasky, the point that does in utilitarianism and other overarching-common-end sorts of ethic; he takes it that such theories are unable to give sufficient account of the fact that agents have special reasons for pursuing their _own_ ends.
Frankly, this is a questionable beginning. He is surely on firm ground in basing our rights against one another on the fundamentally teleological features of human life. But that my "projects" pose special reasons for _me_ to act does not in any way imply that they pose no reason for you _at all_. It seems entirely meaningful to speak of a "common end" shared by rational agents as such, coherently inclusive of the "projects" of all such individuals; that each individual has a unique _prioritization_ of reasons does not mean that each individual has a distinct _set_ of reasons.
Perhaps your self-actualization as a brilliant jazz drummer is supremely important to you and only marginally important to me. But if even one of my goals as a rational agent is to help bring "good things" into the world, can we say that -- other things equal -- your goal is simply _irrelevant_ to me?
No matter how many other actual goals I may have that (quite properly) take precedence over my helping you to become a self-actualized jazz drummer, it is still the case that, if I had no conflicting goals of my own, I _would_ have reason to pursue your actualization. It also, therefore, seems to be the case that I have such reason even when it is not my controlling reason, i.e. when it is outweighed by my legitimate pursuit of my own "projects." My reasons, like W.D. Ross's "_prima facie_ duties," do not simply disappear merely because they are outweighed by other reasons.
Some versions of utilitarianism and idealism, then, remain standing even after Lomasky's attack; a defender of either could easily argue that Lomasky is entirely right without abandoning his/her own position. The utilitarian could say that, _therefore_, utilitarianism should make it a(n impartial!) "rule" that each person should pursue primarily his or her own "projects." The idealist could say that, _therefore_, an ethic of ideal self-actualization should take care to regard the ideal common end of humanity as coherently (and impartially!) inclusive of, not a replacement for, the individual project-pursuits of individual persons.
In either case, Lomasky has not said anything that ultimately tells against the theory in question; he has simply pointed out an important feature that must not be omitted from either account if it is to remain credible. This is of course no small achievement in its own right. But it leaves room for -- say -- Brand Blanshard to argue that human beings do indeed have a common ideal end which they nevertheless "serve" or "promote" by becoming most completely themselves.
Lomasky implicitly acknowledges this point in a great deal of his discussion. He acknowledges, for example, that the well-being of other project pursuers is an _intrinsic_ good, _ceteris paribus_ worthy of pursuit for its own sake. (Indeed he just about has to acknowledge this in order to make his argument for rights, else no single project pursuer could have reason to respect rights _as_ rights.) And he grants that the well-being of one project-pursuer _does_, in and of itself, provide a reason for another project-pursuer to act (at least under conditions which guarantee that the other project-pursuer can understand what is at issue).
But in that case, it is entirely meaningful to say that our rights against one another depend on a common end, so long as we are careful to understand that end in the proper way. What Lomasky has shown -- and shown very well -- is that we cannot take that "common end" as somehow imposed from the top down and as superseding our individual projects; we must argue _up_ to it by starting with individual projects and seeing what is involved in rendering them ideally coherent. Our common "transcendent" end does not trump our individual "immanent" ends but incorporates, informs, and delimits them.
To my own mind, bringing out this point would have provided a more solid reply to the variety of liberalism that recognizes a nonlibertarian role for the territorial State. And it would have vastly improved on Ayn Rand's dismissal of the entire concept of a "common good."
But none of this tells against Lomasky's arguments for rights themselves -- only against his characterization of what he calls the "Foil" position. And much of his characterization of this Foil is altogether apt. His main worry is that it insists that all moral decisions are to be made "impartially" and therefore leaves no room for agents to be "partial" to their own projects. In this he is surely raising a crucially important point, at least about what "impartiality" means.
What I think is missing is a full recognition of Lomasky's own insight -- that the fulfillment of individual projects by project-pursuers "partial" to their own success is, in and of itself, an intrinsic good worthy of promotion on quite impartial grounds. And to reach this point, we need only follow Lomasky's own clear and cogent arguments to their logical conclusions.