Conservative Tenet # 3

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3. The superiority of liberty to equality in the hierarchy of human values and social purposes.

This is a very tricky one. Of course, most of them are tricky, as is most serious thought. Does that mean Your Humble Blogger should give up and watch Rocket Power? No, no, no. I must muddle through.

First, I'm not altogether sure, a priori, that there ought to be a hierarchy of human values and social purposes. I think that has to be worked out before I can say whether liberty should be superior to equality in that hierarchy. So, first: is there a hierarchy of human values and social purposes, should there be, and what should one be used for?

Since we're already looking at the question in the context of the superiority of one value to another, that's the way I'll start. Everything everybody ever does involves moral choice; that’s the way the universe works. Two big problems with that are (a) that’s an awful lot of work, and (b) often it’s very hard to find out the information you need to make moral choices, and then make the moral choice, quickly enough to act on the choice. So, in order to function, we make shortcuts. Those shortcuts involves habits and rules, which tell me, in advance, how I ought to act in a variety of situations, so that when I am in a situation, I can use the pattern-matching ability that is part of my human heritage, and match up the situation to the appropriate behavior. At least that’s how I think I work, or that’s the model of how I work that seems to fit the available evidence.

What does this have to do with the superiority of one value over another? Well, in many situations, the rule relies on placing one value over another. Politeness is higher than truthfulness, if I am showing you baby pictures, but not if I’m drunk and heading for my car, because saving a life outranks politeness. On a civic level, the right to travel freely is a good thing, and so is national security, and we need to rank them in order to decide what our airports should be like.

So people do rank their values, and they need to, in order to morally function in a universe too complex to completely perceive. And (this is one of Your Humble Blogger’s hobby-horses) it’s a better idea to do it thoughtfully and rigorously than to do it sloppily and by habit. It’s a good idea to decide whether (for instance) you are willing to break the speed limit before you start the car; it’s a good idea to decide whether you are willing to kill people before you join the Marines.

I think that’s a good start on Tenet 3; when I decide if liberty is superior to equality, what I’m talking about is not whether the two ideas have equal merit (both have merit, and I have no idea how to compare them in that way), but whether, as a basis for pattern-making and rule-writing, we want to give liberty more sway than equality, whether we want to be more reluctant to infringe liberty in order to support equality or more reluctant to encourage inequality if it maintains maximum liberty.

That’s enough to sleep on, anyway.

Thank you,

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