The first of these is Lee’s contrast between libertarians, who “are not comfortable with normative questions,” and conservatives eager to codify their value hierarchies in law. The knee-jerk reaction from some quarters is the true-but-obtuse observation that, of course, full-blown moral relativism is normatively inert — you cant use it as a foundation for a political theory, in its strong form. Obviously, if you’re going to deny that we can be confident about any moral principles, you don’t have much ground to stand on when you object to government encroachment on your liberties. The problem is, you pretty much have to assume, in violation of basic standards of interpretive charity, that Lee is a full-out imbecile if you think that such an obvious point somehow escaped her. In other words, you need to calm your twitchy knee for long enough to inquire whether that’s what she’s really saying.
I find it interesting that Julian Sanchez takes me to task for failing to be charitable to Susan Lee, while at the same time failing to be charitable with me. But as I have noticed over the years, people tend to tolerate such contradictions fairly easily. So no, Julian, I did not presume that Susan Lee was an “imbecile” (let alone a “full-out imbecile”) — but rather just an average non-philosopher with the usual below-average skills of contradiction-detection. Intelligent people don’t always make intelligent arguments.
The principle of charity does not magically transform arguments into rubber, allowing them to be stretched into favorable interpretations. In any interpretation, our first priority should be to look for the clear and coherent meaning, only using the principle of charity when doubts about that meaning remain. Susan Lee’s article left little doubts.
For example, she writes, “Libertarians are not comfortable with normative questions. They admit to one moral principle from which all preferences follow; that principle is self-ownership–individuals have the right to control their own bodies, in action and speech, as long as they do not infringe on the same rights for others. The only role for government is to help people defend themselves from force or fraud. Libertarians do not concern themselves with questions of ‘best behavior’ in social or cultural matters.”
If these statements had been qualified with the very short and simple “in politics,” most of my objections would disappear. But Lee made no such qualification, not here, not elsewhere in the article. So why should we read her as if she did? Why shouldn’t we take her to mean exactly what she says?
As libertarians, we might really really want Lee to make good arguments, particularly on the pages of The Wall Street Journal. But such a desire doesn’t justify reading qualifications into the text that don’t exist. People make bad arguments all the time, including for viewpoints with which we agree. By supporting these bad arguments rather than noting their failures, we weaken the power and appeal of libertarianism in the long run. So why bother?
Update: My view of libertarianism has change substantially since I wrote this post. For my reasons why, see the second half of my blog post Stinky Garbage on Islam and my husband’s essay The Fable of the Cardiac Surgeon and the Organization of Health Practitioners or Why I Don’t Support Libertarian Organizations.