Eli Dourado

Bleeding-heart social moral anti-realism?

Like many of you, I have been enjoying recent posts on Cato Unbound about “bleeding-heart libertarianism,” as well as on the similarly-named blog. What follows are some half-formed thoughts they prompted. This post is not meant as an explicit critique of anybody; everyone involved knows way more about philosophy than I do.

Most philosophers (and virtually all ordinary people) accept or lean toward moral realism, the idea that moral claims purport to report facts, and that these facts are sometimes true. But it seems to me that we can distinguish between “individual moral realism” and “social moral realism” (my terms; real philosophers might have other ones). For the purposes of this post, let me accept individual moral realism; there is such a thing as the good life, and moral claims about individuals sometimes correctly report facts about it.

The acceptance of individual moral realism does not necessarily obligate me to accept social moral realism. There is at least one possible reason to think that social moral realism is unnecessary, and one for rejecting it. First, social moral realism is unnecessary if all true claims about the good society follow directly from facts about the good life. If this were true, then there would be no independently true claims about the good society. True claims about social justice, for instance, would be mere restatements of true claims about ordinary justice.

Second, we should reject social moral realism if insofar as the good life for some people is in tension with the good life for others, it is impossible to coherently rank different conceptions of the good society. Think of it like Arrow’s impossibility theorem. Arrow proves that even if there are such things as facts about individual rationality, there are not necessarily facts about collective rationality (under particular assumptions). Why would something similar not hold for morality?

I read both Rawlsians and utilitarians as attempting to assert facts about the correct way to adjudicate tensions between individual pursuits of the good life. These assertions are similar to those about different methods of collective decision-making: “Simple majority voting is the best decision-making system!” “No, instant run-off voting is the best!” “Have you forgotten about the Borda count?” If something like Arrow’s theorem holds for morality, we should reject Rawlsian and utilitarian claims. Further, we might be suspicious of them as attempts to wield power over people (not very libertarian, huh?).

What does this mean for bleeding-heart libertarianism? To my mind, it means that the strongest grounds for BHL is simply individual morality. It is wrong, inconsistent with the good life, to seek to dominate other people for the sake of domination; this plus some reasonable positive claims about the world implies quite a bit of libertarianism, does it not? It is good for people—it cultivates gratitude and compassion, which are good—to be concerned about those who are marginalized. These, to me, are far more persuasive than top-down approaches to BHL.

I know the above is sloppy. I’m happy to be corrected or constructively criticized, so go ahead, real philosophers: shoot holes in my argument.