Freedom of association: only skin deep
June 5, 2014 § 45 Comments
In the comments below I wrote that unqualified freedom of association is a libertarian fantasy, which led CJ to ask:
Zippy, not to get all positivist on you, but would you mind discussing principles that should be considered when qualifying freedom of association?
I think it will be easy enough to avoid positivism here, as long as we realize that we are just talking in order to wrap our minds around what is going on not writing computer code that can be executed to decide cases which have been specified in sufficient linguistic detail.
For our purposes here I’ll take “association” to mean pretty much any voluntarily chosen interaction between people, and “freedom” to imply legitimate choice. Legitimate can refer either to legal legitimacy under the positive law or moral legitimacy under the natural law. I will confine my remarks to the latter.
Leaving aside questions of intrinsic morality which pertain to things like murder and adultery, whether and how to associate with other human beings – who to rent to, who to make friends with, etc – generally falls within the realm of prudential judgment. Many right-liberals selectively take “prudential judgment” to mean that it is impossible to do wrong, or at least it is impossible to judge that others have done wrong, when it suits their purposes. This is a particularly common rhetorical tactic when it comes to justifying war.
But here we know better. Prudential judgment applies to acts that are not immoral in themselves as behaviors, but it doesn’t follow that they cannot be judged morally right or wrong based on intentions and circumstances. In fact a prudential situation is precisely one in which the morality of what we do is determined by intentions and circumstances.
This applies to every choice we ever make. There are no amoral choices, strictly speaking, which is why it is important to cultivate virtue, or habits of making good choices. We can’t explicitly think through everything we do in every moment, despite the fact that everything we do is morally fraught.
But some choices are whimsical, idiosyncratic, and personal; whereas others involve more grave matters. Whether to drink water or wine with dinner is mostly, for most people, just a matter of personal preference. There is nothing at all wrong with personal preferences, but they can easily be overridden by more important considerations. The choice of wine for an alcoholic is imprudent in a way that it is not for the rest of us: and because it is imprudent, it is morally wrong for him to choose it.
To model this more “algorithmically” (with the caveats about positivism in mind – this is just an intuition pump, not positivist rules), lets postulate three levels of moral gravity in the matter of a particular proposed choice: preference, serious, and grave. Grave considerations outweigh serious ones, and serious considerations outweigh preferences. So when a choice involves a preference set against a serious concern, a morally just prudential judgment favors the serious concern.
Choices about whom to associate with and why can involve any of these ‘levels’ of moral gravity in their particular matter; and to the extent that “freedom of association” implies that preferences can morally override other serious or grave considerations, it is just flat out wrong.
Most of the time, choosing Coke over Pepsi is just a matter of personal preference. But doing so at the table with a bunch of Pepsi executives, knowing that one of them will be fired because of it, is a different matter entirely. The attempt to sanitize our prudential decisions morally by invoking “freedom of association” is liberal tommyrot.