Question #11: What is the relationship between objective virtues and individual rights?

Normally, others ask a question and I answer; however, this time, I am asking the question above and only starting towards an answer, which I will chew through over time in future posts.

Over the past several months, a couple blocks from the White House, I have been attending an Ayn Rand Institute lecture series directed at young adults, interns and professionals working in our nation’s capital. I have found the audiences to be smart, sharp, and engaged in the ideas being discussed. While speakers Yaron Brook and Onkar Ghate effectively communicated critical and voluminous information about the relationship between ethics and politics, the audience gave feedback through their questions during the Q&A that something was missing in making the Objectivist case.

This communication gap is not limited to these young people. I recall being told a couple years ago of a similar problem with addressing experienced professionals working in DC think tanks. An experienced political activist and attorney shared her experience conducting educational outreach to these professional wonks. She expressed inadequate progress in developing their appreciation for the vital link between ethics and politics, and thereby public policy; these wonks were stuck in a mindset of thinking about politics from an economics perspective in evaluating policy alternatives.

Getting back to the Q&A following separate lectures by Brook and Ghate, the questioners were stuck on two points in ethics:

  1. What is the ethical relationship between me (the questioner) and other people?
  2. How do I evaluate that a specific action directed by choice is actually selfish, and thus objectively moral?

I note that Brook and Ghate covered BOTH of these issues, yet the audience members were still struggling to chew through these questions themselves.

During these sessions, I was bouncing up and down on the inside, where it doesn’t count, as I experienced a flashback to the first words I heard upon returning to college. In a political philosophy class, Dr. B initiated us with the question, which he intoned as a command, “What is justice?” From Plato’s Republic, this is the first question in the development of political philosophy.

In what I thought would be a softball question, during the Q&A, I asked Ghate to expand upon the concept of justice, which he had including without elaboration in his presentation’s slides. Unfortunately, my intent was not manifest. In politics, Objectivism implements justice through a government protecting individual rights; further, justice is one of Objectivism’s ethical virtues by which choices are made not only regarding your interactions with others, but also your evaluation of yourself. As I reconsidered this unexpressed point, a chewed more and thought that justice was but a hint at something more significant.

Soon after, something that Diana Hsieh had said in her podcast, Philosophy in Action, pointed in a promising direction. Related to analyzing an unjust law that had intended to be just, Hsieh observed and listed the negative concrete consequences to law abiding citizens as a result of the unjust law. Considering the concretes cited by Hsieh, I pondered the principles at stake and realized that government force was being misapplied to prevent individuals from acting virtuously…the unjust law in question was not only attacking the virtue of justice, but also of independence.

Considering Hsieh’s case and supporting evidence from other instances in reality via either personal experience or history, I settled upon two broad and complementary questions:

  1. Do some or all objectively valid laws protect virtues? Is this the essence of freedom, the freedom to be moral by choice?
  2. Do some or all objectively invalid laws attack virtue and thus in fact increase immorality?

SO WHAT? How does this get back to the original issue identified in the Q&A after the ARI lectures? My thought…by emphasizing the relationship between virtues (the tools of individual choice for securing values) and public policy alternatives, an audience member can more easily apply their experiences from life to understanding the relationship between ethics, individual rights, and government.

As a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal), what is the potential of a virtue analysis of political issues? In legal cases, our judges talk of the reasonable man; yet, government is free to act against individual rights wherever a spurious claim of a rational basis for that violation is presented to the court. Could future legislators and jurists consider the negative impacts of an irrational law upon the virtuous man as a basis for protecting a solitary individual from abuse by the majority acting through the legislature or executive? Could such a virtue analysis regain what was lost with the judicial overthrow of our previously recognized constitutional right to substantive due process?

These questions require more review than can be done in a single post. While I will get to looking at specific public policy choices, I need to first step back, level set, and explore the relevant principles, which would be the foundation of such an examination of particulars.

Here is a rough idea of how I plan to start:

  1. Force versus the mind
  2. Economic power versus political power
  3. What are individual rights?
  4. Why should government protect individual rights?
  5. Initiation of force versus retaliatory force
  6. What is the role of ethics in man’s life?
  7. What are values?
  8. What are virtues?
  9. Chew the specific Objectivist virtues
  10. Objective versus non-objective virtues

That will help to set the table for looking at the relationship between objective virtues and specific public policies. Feel free to suggest, in the comments, public policies for future chewing from this virtues perspective.

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