Autonomy and Rights: The Moral Foundations of Liberalism.

Autonomy and Rights: The Moral Foundations of Liberalism. – book reviews

Eric Mack

This dense, rich, and philosophically innovative essay aims to provide a new and improved moral justification for classical liberalism understood as the doctrine that each person possesses negative rights which at least normally prevail over other moral considerations in determining what treatment is owed to that person by other individuals and by the state. Spector develops his own position by way of contrast with “negative liberalism” which he takes to be the standard philosophical format for classical liberal thought. Negative liberalism consists, according to Spector, in four propositions:

(1) The preferred conception of freedom is a negative conception according

to which freedom is the non-restriction by other persons of an agent’s

options for action;

(2) Freedom so conceived is intrinsically valuable;

(3) What is intrinsically valuable (in particular, negative freedom) should

be maximally realized; and

(4) Freedom so conceived will be maximally realized under a regime of exclusively

negative rights or of negative rights which characteristically

have priority over positive rights.

Spector’s own position can be represented by four contrasting propositions:

(5) The preferred conception of freedom is a positive conception according

to which freedom is the non-restriction of an agent’s options for action;

(6) Freedom so conceived is intrinsically valuable (in virtue of being a constituent

of personal autonomy which is valuable in itself);

(7) What is intrinsically valuable (in particular, positive freedom) ought not

to be directly attacked, even if such an attack would yield a net increase

in positive freedom; and

(8) Each person possesses a negative right against attacks on his positive

freedom which has priority over any positive right of others to have their

positive freedoms advanced.

Spector’s argument is complex and nuanced; I hope to capture most of it in the following sketch. Spector supports his own proposition (5) by way of criticism of negative liberalism’s proposition (1). His claim, which seems to me to follow all too readily from his definitions of “negative freedom” and “positive freedom”, is that the negative notion is conceptually and normatively unstable. There is no adequate conceptual basis for marking off losses of options that are brought about by other agents from the general class of losses of options and the disvalue of losing an option by way of another agent’s intervention is simply the disvalue of losing an option plain and simple. Proposition (6) is supported by an appeal to general liberal intuitions about the value of freedom, by the argument that positive freedom participates in the liberal value of personal autonomy, and by the further argument that there is a relation of complex mutual support between “the ideal of personal autonomy” and “the distinct worth of each person’s positive freedom” (p. 162).

Spector is predisposed toward proposition (7) as an alternative to proposition (3), with its maximizing conception of practical rationality, because this maximizing conception is associated with negative liberalism’s bad old way of justifying classical liberalism and because combining (5), (6) and (3) will certainly not get us to libertarian rights which impose side-constraints against any assault upon others’ freedoms. However, Spector also brings into play a series of important interconnected considerations on behalf of (7). This series of investigations comprises the most interesting, and in some respects the most convincing, portion of Spector’s entire argument. The first of these considerations is a rejection of the doctrine of double effect as the underlying principle of deontological practical rationality. The second is a sympathetic recapitulation of the sort of examples presented by, among others, Philippa Foot and Judith Thomson in which the unhappy circumstances of an agent who must choose between a single individual suffering a harm and five other individuals suffering like harms calls forth the intuition that there is a morally significant asymmetry between causing harm and allowing it and, a fortiori, between bringing about and failing to prevent losses of positive freedom. The third is a critical examination of Michael Tooley’s “Symmetry Principle”, which constitutes a denial of this morally weighty asymmetry. The fourth is a general defence of the moral significance of the act/omission distinction, including a defence of excluding the omission of the prevention of a harm from the set of conditions that are jointly causally sufficient for that harm. The fifth consideration in support of proposition (7) is an explanation of why the evil done by diminishing the positive freedom of the single individual would not be justified by preserving the positive freedom of each of the other five. That explanation is that the incommensurability of the intrinsic value of each agent’s positive freedom disallows the claim that preserving the freedom of the five counter-balances diminishing the freedom of the one.

Proposition (7), along with fairly non-controversial definitions of “duty”, “rights”, etc., may get us to the claim that each person has a right against having his positive freedom diminished even if inflicting this loss will prevent a greater diminution of others’positive freedoms. However, as Spector sees it, this claim does not yet amount to a fully libertarian, side-constraint, reading of (8). For it leaves open the possibility of a “utilitarianism of rights” within which it would be better for an agent to violate the rights of one in order to prevent some other agent violating the comparable rights of five. Under the fully libertarian reading, each agent should be especially concerned with his avoidance of the infliction of losses. Spector, following Thomas Nagel especially, views this as indicative of the agent-relative character of genuinely deontological restrictions. Hence, he seeks to offer an explanation of why moral restrictions have this agent-relative quality. The explanation offered appeals to the root notion of “personal separateness” and discloses a common ground underlying belief in deontological restraints and belief in the incommensurable intrinsic value of each individual’s positive freedom. While the latter belief reflects “our separateness as possible beneficiaries or victims of the behavior of others,” the former belief reflects “our separateness as moral agents” (p. 178).

This account of the complex and stimulating content of Autonomy and Rights leaves room for describing only two of what I believe to be a larger number of important problems. The first of these concerns Spector’s claim that positive freedom acquires intrinsic value in virtue of being an essential constituent of personal autonomy, which is valuable in itself. Personal autonomy obtains when an agent acts “in accordance with motivations critically endorsed by higher-order preferences which he has developed within a framework of normal interaction with the surrounding world” (p. 94). An agent’s autonomous actions “express his own nature”. However, to express his own nature, an agent must “see himself as expressing his own nature” (p. 97). The rub is that sometimes an agent acting in accord with motivations endorsed by higher-order preferences will not see himself as expressing his own nature. This will occur when the agent judges “that he is forced to have [the endorsed first-order motivation] given the abnormally narrow compass of options in which he is placed” (p. 97). Spector concludes from this that:

the greater the number of options available, the more fully a person’s first-order motivations express his own nature and, consequently, the more fully he expresses through his conduct his own nature. (p. 98)

Hence, positive freedom is an essential element of autonomy. But, even given Spector’s account of autonomy, what is needed for autonomy is not a greater number of options, i.e., an augmentation of positive freedom, but options that are more reflective of higher-order preferences. Thus, positive freedom as Spector defines it has not been shown to be an essential constituent of personal autonomy.

A second problem concerns Spector’s assertion of the incommensurability of the value of each person’s positive freedom. It seems to me that the only way in which each person’s freedom can have “distinct worth” so that it makes no sense to speak of the preservation of the freedom of the five as counter-balancing the destruction of the freedom of the one is by construing the value of exemplifications of freedom as agent-relative – in particular, as relative to the agent whose freedom it is. However, Spector disavows this understanding of “distinct worth”. For he insists that the only agent-relative reasons he is concerned with in Autonomy and Rights are those which are grounded in “our separateness as moral agents” (p. 178) and which illuminate the self-constraint character of deontological restrictions (p. 167). Indeed, Spector must disown the agent-relativist reading of “the distinct worth of each person’s positive freedom” (p. 162) because, despite his insistence on a deontological conception of practical rationality, he remains wedded to the idea that it is the disvalue of agent B’s loss of freedom that obligates agent A not to cause that loss (cf. p. 73). Clearly, if the disvalue of the loss of freedom were merely disvalue relative to B, the disvalue would not provide A with reason to restrain his behavior. And if the disvalue of B’s loss were merely disvalue relative to A, the disvalue could not obligate A to B to restrain his behavior. Given his belief that he must appeal to the value of B’s freedom, Spector must then construe that value as agent-neutral. But this renders the value incommensurability of distinct exemplifications of freedom mysterious. My view is that the culprit here is not the belief in the value incommensurability of distinct exemplifications of freedom, but rather Spector’s non-deontological view that A’s obligation to B not to damage B’s freedom must be anchored in the disvalue of B’s loss of freedom.

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