Do we read Shakespeare because it’s good or because it’s historically significant?

One of the most significant developments lately in terms of framing libertarianism has been the advent of the “Bleeding-Heart Libertarian” blog. I know most of the contributors personally (and I’m electronically-acquainted with all of them), and there’s not one I don’t respect. Their mission statement says they are “libertarians who believe that addressing the needs of the economically vulnerable by remedying injustice, engaging in benevolence, fostering mutual aid, and encouraging the flourishing of free markets is both practically and morally important.” The reason that’s a great point to make is that often, people who advocate the moral superiority of the free society are accused of not caring about the poor. One response to that is to bite the bullet and say “right: I don’t care about the poor qua poor, I care about all people qua people, and all people’s rights must be protected.” That’s a legitimate stance, but it’s not hard to see why some critics of liberalism find it less than compelling. So it’s helpful to say, as they do, “no, you don’t get it: we do care about the poor – that’s why we advocate free markets and individual liberty.” To be sure, there is an intra-libertarian debate to have about philosophical justification: is a system of individual rights ultimately justified because it accrues the best results for the poor, or is it justified for some other reason(s), and has the beneficial characteristic of accruing the best results for the poor? This is not unlike Socrates’ second refutation of Euthyphro: the pious is loved by the gods, but that’s an attribute, not a definition. As President Clinton (correctly!) put it, it depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. I think it’s right and important for political philosophers to have that argument (and for the record, I say it’s the latter), but inasmuch as we ultimately want to persuade as many people as we can of the good sense of our position, I think this sort of debate should not overshadow the many ways in which we can show that good sense.

11 thoughts on “Do we read Shakespeare because it’s good or because it’s historically significant?

  1. Um, can you be more specific about what you didn’t like? I didn’t think this post was especially controversial.

  2. Excellent piece, Aeon! Not controverisal at all. I did have a few questions though.

    (1) – If a/the Libertarian (?) response to accusations by some that those who are focused on the moral superiority of the free society do not care about the poor is “we care about people qua people” and not “the poor qua poor” then it creates a few uneasy questions for me, someone who does care about people (this includes the poor) and about freedom. I’ll try to detail my worry as succinctly as possible.

    If I care about people qua people and I also care about freedom wouldn’t it be best to take a little from those who have a lot and give to those who have close to none? And, if it wouldn’t be best, surely, it would be a plausible thing to do given that the only feasible or likely way I can help the poor systematically is to take a little from the rich. This is not to say I don’t care about the rich. Only that I care about people and people have needs. I am not forcing the rich to go without, I care enough not to take too much, to ensure that they can still drive a Mercedes but maybe not a Lamborghini. So, if I took from the rich (small %) and gave to the poor couldn’t I claim to be caring for “people qua people” and not only the “poor qua poor”?

    I ask these questions sincerely. I often find myself torn between my quest to live in a free society and the likelihood that the poor would only suffer worse if government crumbled tomorrow. Some poor might be as “well off” as they are now, but, it seems that most would not. This is mainly why I don’t do political philosophy as I often see states as providing resources that would not exist if it weren’t for their unjust skimming but I feel like I would advocate for a smaller state on grounds of liberty only to produce a state of affairs in which more people went unfed and without health care and a place to stay.

  3. It’s easy enough to see a rich guy and a poor guy and say, well surely it would ok to take just a small amount from the one to help out the other – for example, the marginal utility of 100 bucks to the wealthy guy is next to nothing but might be vast to the homeless guy. The question for political phil, though, isn’t what should you or I do faced with an example like that, but rather what sort of political/legal order, what sorts of rules and institutions, should we have? It’s at least possible that a system in which there is no coercive redistributivism would in fact produce greater assistance to the poor guy than statism would. That’s the argument: that the politics and economics of coercive redistributivism exacerbate the problem of poverty rather than ameliorate it, in addition to whatever we might want to say about the individual liberty angle.

  4. Thanks for the response.

    Great question; what sorts of political/legal order, what sorts of rules and institutions, should we have?

    My quick answer would be something like this: the society that best allows one to flourish. And, the BHL claim is that more people would flourish in a society with no coercive distribution, right?

    So, I guess it boils down to your last sentence then. It does seem quite unintuitive for me (and many others that I have talked to about this) to think that a system (our current system) that takes a small amount from a lot of citizens to give to children/homeless/handicapped/mentally ill vs. a system that asks for donations for these same individuals would be more conducive to a flourishing life for more of its citizens. When we take from the well off they can still flourish, and, when we educate the poor and provide their basic needs, they too can flourish. In the donation scenario we would need quite a bit to provide the basic needs for the poor to flourish.

    Does it simply come down to a claim about human nature? What would human beings do if the poor did not have programs to feed, house, and educate them? And if so, are the BHL’s putting their eggs in the basket of donations that meet or exceed the benefits the poor currently receive? I’m not as pessimistic as Hobbes, but I’m also not as optimistic as the BHL’s. Models of rationality would claim giving away money (at the clip that would be needed for the poor to get what they get now) to be irrational. I guess I’m wondering, why so optimistic?

  5. Well, I am not a spokesman for BHL, but they’re all friendly and reasonable, so why not investigate their blog for a while, and pose a question there? In general, though, I agree there needs to be some programs, but your question presupposes that it’s only via the state that such programs can arise. I recommend this:

  6. I stand by my comments Professor Skoble, regarding your peice of February 1st 2013. The posting was sub-standard. Here are some issues for you and the audience to consider. What is a BLH? Where is this, ‘mission statement’ of the BLH’? Is it on-line at a library somewhere in the Mid-West? Do ‘Free markets’ exist or are they merely a societal rhetorical fiction? What element of consumer/production/distribution activity can be shown to make a market free as oppossed to being unfree? If a Free Market can exist or does exist why should it produce a Free Society?

    Your digression into an incantation of ‘Socrates’ and his ‘second refutation of Euthyphro’ namely: ‘the pious is loved by the gods’ was tiresome and although stating the obvious is not an ultimate negative the following seven words in the text were entirely wasted, ‘but that’s an attribute, not a definition’. It was pointless. It was so solipistic it was almost neurotic. I am a senior and more accomplished philosopher than Roger Scrutton in the UK and on a par with Lewis, for well known reasons, and I have the same status as a contributor to academic Philosophy as Rawls retains in the US.

  7. As I said Professor Skoble in my comments on the 7th of February in response to your piece submitted online on the 1st of February 2013 your submission was, in my view in its entirety ‘so solipistic it was almost neurotic’. My opinions do come with weight attached.

    I would suggest you reread the your submission and then cognitively reframe your propositions, separate them into a more refined clausal format and put your thoughts down again. I can not offer you any more help.

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