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I’ve had this said to me at three different events over the past couple of months. This ought to come as a shock to folks. Why? Because it is being presented as a utilitarian argument for something that cannot be entered into the utilitarian calculus. In fact, holding values such as liberty important provide an important check against the sort of utility monsters that modern policymakers seem to dismiss out of hand.

But beyond that, what exactly is a value? Can someone hold an antisocial and antihuman view and classify it as a value? For example, can one hold the enslavement and rule over other people as their most important value? I would think not, because by holding this value, you would not be permitting the flourishing of someone who holds the opposite as his major value. But I am not sure I am thinking of this right. If my ultimate value is freedom, then I would be causing harm to people whose primary value is unfreedom. Can it therefore be said that I am not ethically permitted to hold freedom as my highest moral value? Would there be any value one could hold?

Something is not right with my thinking, especially since the only way I can end the “debate” in my head is that people have a natural right to self ownership, and thus it is not permissible for someone to hold unfreedom as a value. Or is it? Cannot people hold the value so long as it is not acted upon?

I’m just a confused mess here. Armchair philosophers are welcome to help. I have many other angles I could address this question with, but I am primarily asking, “what can and cannot be held as a value” and if we hold something as a value what does that imply for policymakers in terms of respecting those values?

For example, change the value we are talking about. What if a student came to me and argued, “Love is oversold as a value” and should therefore not have to be respected when policymakers craft policy.

The statement would just seem awkwardly out of place, but even if one tried to make something of that statement, isn’t a “value” like love not even the purview of the political process? Ought it be promoted in the process? Or suppressed? Indeed, for those of us who hold liberty as the highest value, recognizing that liberty is not the same as “good” and “easy,” can anyone tell me that it ought not be ranked as highly in my value chain?

3 Responses to “Freedom is Oversold as a Value”

  1. Harry says:

    Your headline sure got my attention, wintercow.

    I had never thought about liberty being beyond the utilitarian calculus, and to me it is an insight to a concept we share.

    Your invitation to armchair philosophers was generous, but as I sit in my armchair, the Phillies are coming on.

  2. Harry says:

    Socrates asked the same question. He also berated the Sophists for their insincerity in pursuit of truth.

    As Aristotle would say, you have to start somewhere. To my way of thinking, both liberty and love are good places to start as fundamental values. And if you want to make a choice between the two, love is not possible without liberty.

    Now, if one is going to discuss anything with anyone, you have to agree on some first principles. If the other person denies that there can be no axioms, or, like the Red Queen would say, the axioms are whatever you choose for the moment at hand, then the discussion is over.

    Thus, when someone argues that liberty is not that big a thing relative to the question at hand, as in “Aren’t the Cubans not better off under Castro?”, one has to reject that rhetorical argument as sophism.

    This does not mean one cannot have an honest debate about liberty and the alternatives to liberty.

  3. Harry says:

    Double negative. I meant to say the Red Queen would say the axioms are whatever she says at the moment.

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