Monday, October 20, 2008

Limits

Prof. Deneen:
they begin with the assumption that "morality" is "legislated" by the State. They begin with the base assumption that humans are naturally free actors seeking to maximize their utility, most basically by increasing their pleasures and decreasing their pain or inconvenience. At the most fundamental level, as modern Americans and intuitive Lockeans, we begin with the assumption that we are naturally free and only secondarily and artificially constrained. Beginning with that assumption, all morality must be understood to be legislated, since in our natural condition there is no legislation and no "morality," only freedom. We understand societies to exist to preserve maximal amount of individual freedom and provide only the minimal amount of constraint in order to provide some security and stability.

We should notice that this basic assumption is shared by adherents on both the political Left and Right in our country, albeit touching on what are regarded as distinct spheres of human life. For the political Left, these libertarian assumptions are thought to apply to our personal and especially sexual lives. An example of this assumption can be seen in the argument that is typically used against conservative advocates of teenage sexual abstinence (evinced in the visceral hostility to Sarah Palin): "teenagers are going to do it anyway, so we should teach them about birth control." It underlies the contemporary insistence that the innate, genetic sources of homosexuality should be regarded as despositive of any further arguments against certain types of sexual hedonism: if it's natural, it will and needs to be acted upon. At Georgetown, we now have a Resource Center for LBGTQ students; what we do not have is a Resource Center for students who might seek to remain sexually abstinent, or even one that encourages abstinence among all students, regardless of sexual orientation. And this is a Catholic university, we are told.


I broadly agree with Prof. Deneen on this point. I particularly agree with the idea that "if it's natural, it will and needs to be acted upon" is a false notion. Yet, I think he goes to far on the economic front, but that is to be expected given my biases.

This basic assumption underlies many of the economic assumptions of the Right, as well: the free market is populated with homo economicus, countless self-seeking, risk-taking, profit-seeking self-maximizers. To the extent that our market system is arranged to prevent obstacles to those behaviors, we can expect a dynamic and prosperous economic system. Legislation that restricts self-maximizing activities are abhorrent, curtailing growth and dampening the spirit of entrepreneurialism. These assumptions underlie arguments against regulations that potentially damage the bottom line, or efforts to soften the harsher aspects of the free market system - such as welfare - that undermine our natural economic incentives.


There is some truth to Prof. Deneen's contention that the economy's growth through increasing abstraction from tangible goods is something far too few people give thought to, but this is really question of whether the human mind is capable, and more importantly should engage in, creativity without limits. If the mind is either not capable of this creativity or at some point this creativity should be constrained, then the question becomes where the limit naturally is or where it should be drawn? I, for one, question whether the economic and health benefits of stem cell research are worth the moral risks, but I am far less certain that financial innovation through increasing abstract instruments is not despite the recent woes on Wall St.

Nevertheless, Prof. Deneen's post is, like always, worth reading in its entirety.

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