Saturday, February 2, 2008

A certain kind of conservative

There is—and if there isn't, we can imagine her—a certain kind of conservative who both likes to have laws prohibiting various kinds of behavior that she takes to be immoral and in the name of freedom believes in a small government and is opposed to much government regulation in business (e.g., minimum wage laws) and other areas of life. The position seems inconsistent or at least ad hoc: she opposes certain kinds of regulation but not others. (It is sometimes said that people like want to have the freedom to do the things they like, but not to give others the freedom to do the things they like, but that is an unkind jibe, for instance because such a person might well want, for the good of her own soul, that the state prohibit immoral behaviors that she herself is tempted towards.)

I will argue that, whatever the substantive merits of positions like that, the position can be quite consistent, and indeed the restriction of immoral activity is quite consistent with setting a high value on civil freedom.

For it may well be that the activities that our conservative wishes to prohibit are ones that she takes to be absolutely wrong in all cases. Now it is possible to value civil freedom, without valuing the civil freedom to do what is wrong. Rather, one might value the civil freedom to choose between multiple morally permissible options. One might hold that no civil freedom worth having is lost to one through a prohibition on what would anyway be wrong to do.

However, the regulations that this conservative opposes on the grounds of the value of liberty are ones that prohibit, or at least penalize, activities some instances of which would be morally permissible but for the law. Consider, for instance, a minimum wage law. While there is a moral duty to pay a just wage, it is false that absent such a law it is always wrong to pay less than $5.85 per hour to an American worker in our day. It is not wrong, for instance, to pay $4 per hour to a kid who has no need for the money, who wants to work to get some experience, and whose productivity is significantly below that of an older worker. It is not wrong to pay workers $4 per hour if the owner is only making $4 per hour herself and the only available alternative for the business is to go broke and leave the workers destitute. The latter case is pretty rare but physically possible, but the former is less rare. In any case, it is clear that the minimum wage law prohibits some activities that are reasonably taken by our conservative not to be independently immoral, and indeed I suspect that even the proponents of such a law (I have no principled problem with minimum wage laws) are going to agree.

Our conservative takes the regulations she opposes to make illegal, or at least penalize, some actions that otherwise would have been morally unexceptionable. Moreover the proponents of the legislation are going to agree about this fact. They will, however, insist either that in most cases the activities prohibited or penalized would be wrong, or that some of the evils prohibited or prevented by the legislation are so great that it is worth prohibiting some otherwise permissible activities to prohibit these evils, or that great social goods are promoted by the legislation. The conservative lover of civil freedom will not be impressed, but may insist that we should leave unprohibited ten wrong actions rather than prohibit one permissible action just as we should leave unpunished ten guilty people rather than punish one innocent one.

Observe, too, the following. Legislation that prohibits something that is already immoral (e.g., fornication or unjustified breach of contract) does not decrease the number of actions that are morally open to one. But legislation that prohibits some actions that are not already immoral does decrease the number of actions that are morally open to one—for while the action wasn't immoral before the legislation was put in place, it becomes immoral afterwards to do it, since we are morally bound to obey the state (within certain limits). So it is quite consistent to believe in civil freedom, and to attack all kinds of otherwise reasonable laws on the grounds that they limit civil freedom, while yet wanting to prohibit fornication, unjustified breach of contract, suicide, medically unnecessary amputations, etc., as long as one believes the latter actions to be always wrong.

I am not saying that the position I described is above criticism. I think in any well-run state, we will need a lot of legislation that prohibits antecedently morally permissible activities (such as driving on the left side of the road). But at least it should be clear that one can consistently call for legal prohibitions on some activities one takes to be immoral while setting a very high value (perhaps too high a value) on civil freedom.


normajean said...

Alex, this has nothing at all to do with your post here (I apologize). I’ve heard it said that logical laws are a consequence of reality such that there is no need for an immaterial mind to serve as grounds for its existence. Is this something you’ve addressed on your blog before? The idea is to erase the need for a supernatural explanation. What resources or thoughts might you have?

This came up at Victor Reppert 2

Derrick said...


While I usually enjoy your posts, I can't help but think that you're attacking a straw man with this one. The reason why I think this is because I have not heard anyone say that conservatism of this stripe is a contradiction in principle, but rather that specific instances of this kind of conservatism is inconsistent. By that, I mean that no one claims that these individuals are inconsistent because they believe that murderers or rapists should be punished by the government.
What I've noticed is that this kind of charge is leveled at those that, say, endorse American drug policy on drugs such as marijuana and certain hallucinogens while criticizing those that sue tobacco companies. While I don't want to get up on a soap box here, it can't be denied that tobacco is more dangerous and those selling it are selling a much more hazardous product that a kid selling pot on a street corner. Why does the latter deserve a jail sentence and the former deserves government subsidation? Perhaps I'm misunderstanding you, or I missed something that you said that deals with my concerns. Anyway, have a great night.

Derrick said...

I also wanted to add, I'm not trying to argue for a specific drug policy change, but just wanted to use that as an example of the kind of position that is criticized. 'Night.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I'm trying to argue that a specific position is consistent, because I find the fact that it is consistent to be an interesting fact. And while it's not controversial that one can consistently be in favor of a small government, and love liberty, while wanting to punish murder and rape, it is somewhat controversial that one can consistently be in favor of a small government, and love liberty, while wanting to punish, say, all cases of fornication. (Myself, I neither love liberty quite as much as my hypothetical character, nor do I want the state to be punishing all cases of fornication, though I think all cases of fornication are immoral.)

The drug case is probably not going to be covered by what I'm arguing for in my post, unless the person in question believes that any use of the drugs in question is always immoral for reasons other than health or safety.

Let's see what's the best case I can make for the rational consistency of the position you attack. (I am not defending the position, just its consistency.)

Someone might hold the following opinion: nicotine and caffeine do not shift the operation of the mind in a significant--they may increase alertness, say, but that is only to enhance the mind's natural functioning. On the other hand, drugs like alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, etc., do actually alter the operation of the mind (e.g., by making one have lower inhibitions), and the person might think it is wrong to alter the operation of the mind except in cases of restoring a person with a psychiatric problem to normalcy. Thus, the person might make a distinction between caffeine and nicotine on the one hand, which are not immoral to use in moderate quantity, and these other drugs on the other hand, moving for a law that allows caffeine and nicotine but prohibits alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and similar mind-altering drugs, except by medical prescription.

However, alcohol is a bit of hard case, because some people drink beverages (e.g., wine) that contain moderate amounts of alcohol in quantities that do not perceptibly alter mental functioning. They may drink these beverages just because they're thirsty or for the taste. So, my hypothetical lover of freedom and anti-drug activist probably isn't going to oppose alcoholic beverages with relatively low alcohol concentrations, such as wine or beer. But she might well opposed hard liquor. (Does anybody drink hard liquor in quantities so small that the ethanol has zero mind-altering effect? What would be the point?)

If so, then my (perhaps hypothetical) lover of freedom would be opposed to banning ethanol, nicotine and caffeine because the substances containing these drugs have morally legitimate uses (in moderation).

I don't think anybody takes cocaine just for the taste--people who take cocaine take it precisely for its mind-altering effect. So if it's immoral to alter your mental functioning in non-enhancing and non-therapeutic ways, then no morally legitimate uses are banned by a ban on cocaine (assuming we allow doctors to prescribe it should a medicinal use be found).

I don't know enough about marijuana. Do any people smoke it for the taste or smell, in quantities so small that there is no mind-altering effect, in a way analogous to someone drinking a sip of wine just for the taste? If so, then to be consistent, our (perhaps hypothetical) lover of freedom has to oppose the criminalization of marijuana to be consistent.

Best wishes,
p.s. Typically people who like a small government are opposed to subsidies in general, and hence presumably in particular to tobacco subsidies. Also, one might object to people suing tobacco companies on general grounds, being opposed to the idea that x can legitimately sue y when x and y are each (jointly? separately? a hard question) responsible for the harm to x. A person whose opposition to suing tobacco companies stems from this will presumably be likewise opposed to a cocaine addict's suing a drug dealer. (It seems perfectly consistent to me to oppose the idea of a customer suing the drug dealer while being in favor of criminal prosecution of the drug dealer.)

Derrick said...

Thanks for clearing that up for me. I see what you were trying to accomplish here. As a side note, the subsidies of tobacco companies was mention was more of a rhetorical flourish more than anything else. What I was trying to point to was the actions of politicians who do both that usually get are charged as inconsistent (though in retrospect I guess that this is more likely to be motivated out of political give and take rather due to an inconsistency in principles). Anyway, thanks for the clarification.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I am still curious if you know if any people smoke marijuana for reasons other than mind-alteration.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't really have a settled view on this question. Sorry I can't be of help!

Anonymous said...


While most people smoke marijuana for the mind-altering effects, I do know those who enjoy the taste and smell of it as well. Many people also enjoy the social aspect of smoking, as in the ritual of sharing, etc. However, I have a feeling that these may be secondary to the mind-altering effects.


normajean said...

That's ok, Alex. I appreciate the consideration. Be well. What Christian Philosopher's are perhaps on to something?

Derrick said...

It depends on what exactly you mean by mind-alteration. Some individuals that I've talked to have smoked pot in order to relax, kind of like how some people would have a drink after dinner to unwind. It's not necessarily that they want to get into an altered state as much as relieve stress. Apparently, if one only smokes a small amount, their functionality is not that inhibited all that much. Because of that, these individuals' position seems somewhat plausible. (One caveat: this is not first hand information, and the degree to which this is the case is probably a little different from person to person).