Friday, February 21, 2003

Conservatism and Metaethics

There is something irksome about the question, In what are property rights grounded? Property rights are basic. Ownership is so pervasively important in our morals that it may be considered as bedrock. There is no grounding needed. We prefer to live this way. What makes one nervous is that the question above is being examined this year at an American university in a philosophy course. I'm wincing because I think the odds of this course being fair are too far from 100% for comfort. University courses of this sort don't usually have professors who are keenly interested in protecting property rights. They tend to lie more to the left. This does not entail bias, of course, but leftism, with its foundation in Kant, Marx and Rawls, does have a tendency to go the insufficiently argued route. Kant admits that what he's talking about - a noumenal self grasping moral truths of reason - is ultimately a matter of faith. Marx says arguing for morals is a sham. And Rawls chops logic so you can't see that there's no argument.* So, you wince and wait for the basic convictions to be proclaimed, the ones that any reasonable person is supposed to recognize as truths of reason, items such as the view that all people are of equal worth just as people.

Of course, I've said that I uphold a basic conviction, too. The difference is metaethical. I say the overwhelming majority uphold this basic conviction in property rights, in the sense of prefering to live according to it, not in the sense of grasping it as a truth of reason independent of preference. This is the tradition of British sentimentalism (Joseph Butler, Hume, and the like). The other is the tradition of the Continental Enlightenment, especially Kant. The former says that people may live the way they prefer. The latter says that morals are the object of thought quite abstract from preference. The former takes its basis in desire. The latter takes its basis in an idol called "Reason," which has so far silently kept his ethical wisdom to himself. And yet we're told that if we can't hear his utterances, it is because our minds are beclouded by desire (Kant, Marx and Rawls roll into one here). Any objection to leftist philosophy must be that of a corrupt mind.

*One more thing about Rawls's book. He tells everyone to bracket his personal biases and desires and think in abstraction in order to figure out what justice is. But Rawls is the author, so he reserves the right to import his personal preference: a self-interested desire to minimize the badness of his worst possible outcome. I guess people who don't want to burden others are irrational, because their preference is not allowed behind the "veil of ignorance". But Rawls's preference is allowed behind the veil. No reason - it just is. This makes A Theory of Justice count as bad philosophy.