Yglesias on Libertarians and Reason (and the reality of numbers, intuitionistic logic, the ontological status of moral properties, etc.)

— I’m a big fan of facile, wandering philosophical argumentation (if you seeks its monument, look around you). In this post, Matthew Yglesias, does it with gusto, but, I fear, dabbles overmuch in confusion and irrelevancy. Matthew’s initial topic is why there is a tendency among libertarians to maintain that their politics partake more of reason than the alternatives. Before I dig in to Matthew a bit, I’ll explain it: Ayn Rand. There you go!

Well, more should be said.

Rand held that life and happiness are man’s rightful moral ends, and that the faculty of reason is the sole means for achieving them. Indeed, Rand has a secularized Thomistic conception of reason (in “The Objectivist Ethics” at least) whereby the achievement of life and happiness is reason’s proper function. However, reason is able to perform its proper function only under conditions of non-coercion–that is, when negative rights are respected. (It might be thought peculiar that reason would have a proper function that could not be fulfilled throughout all but a small fraction of a rather unfree human history, but whatever.) Respect for negative rights, as Rand understands them, is tantamount to libertarianism (although she would not use the dirty ‘l’ word). So a libertarian polity is the condition under which it is possible for reason to properly function and reliably bring about our survival and happiness. Furthermore, the application of reason according to methods consonant with its nature will allegedly reveal this fact to any who may inquire. Many if not most libertarians got that way by reading Ayn Rand. Hence, the frequent association of libertarianism and reason. (Reason magazine was so called, I believe, because Bob Poole and Tibor Machan (I think that’s who) were/are heavily influenced by Rand.)

So that’s that. But what does Matthew have to say, otherwise? Well, he seems to say that its silly to promote one’s political opinions as being especially rational.

[I]f I produce an argument that demonstrates “Doing X is immoral” and you produce a counterargument that proves “Doing not-X is irrational” then I win. We have, after all, a nice tautology that says you ought to do the moral thing, whereas one ought to do the rational thing if and only if it is the moral thing. Of course, one would need to produce actual arguments for both sides of this debate, but the point is that demonstrating the rationality of your moral system is neither necessary nor sufficient for establishing that it’s worthy of adherence.

I wracked my brain looking for any tautology here, much less a nice one, but it continues to elude me. Like H.A. Prichard, Matthew misses that there may be more than one kind of ‘ought’. There are ‘ought’s of morality, ‘ought’s of rationality, ‘ought’s of etiquette, ‘ought’s of interior decoration, and so on. Matthew assumes that the ought of morality is universally authoritative, but why think that? It is a tautology (I wouldn’t say nice) that one morally ought to do what one morally ought to do. Likewise, one rationally ought to do what one rationally ought to do. And so, yes, one morally ought to do what one rationally ought to do only if it’s moral. But big deal. One rationally ought to do what one morally ought to do only if it’s rational. So if you establish that x-ing is immoral and I establish that refraining from x-ing is irrational, you do not “win.” To decide you the winner, we’d need to establish that moral imperatives trump rational imperatives. If one is in the grip of the moral point of view, one will, no doubt, be tempted to pound the table and beg the question and insist that one REALLY (read: morally) ought to do what morality says. But we can all play that game.

Those, like myself, in the grip of the rational point of view will want to know why, if morality will not help me to achieve my ends, should I care about it? Matthew’s infatuation with morals, detached as it is from rationality, strikes me as rather arbitrary.

There’s rather more to say about Matthew’s post, and I may say more later. Somehow Matthew’s post terminates in a discussion of moral realism, via Dummett and mathematical intutitionism. Perhaps Matthew is being innovatively synthetic. I hope so.