Is There a Negative Right to be a Libertarian?

Libertarians express both human rights and obligations negatively. One is entitled only to pursue one’s own ends and others are obligated only to the extent that they do not interfere with individual autonomy. For libertarians, pursuing one’s own ends is largely a matter of pursuing property as all other rights arise from the acquisition of property. As such, liberty is exercised  through competitive trading. Those who lack the ability, will, or good luck to compete successfully in commercial markets create no obligations on others to bring them aid. Contemporary libertarians in the United States can trace their philosophical roots to John Locke for conceptions of personal liberty and property and to Adam Smith for their ideas of free markets. Contemporary libertarians have misinterpreted or deliberately misapplied the claims of the foundational works.

Classical liberalism holds that the government should not interfere with an individual’s choices or actions in any event other than to protect the security of others. John Locke holds that men (it would be a mistake to claim he meant to include women) are free by nature and roughly equal in a natural state. That being the case, men must enter into agreements with one another that limit their freedom to the extent that they are not free to harm one another. Although not in a literal state of nature, a so-called “state of nature” exists any time men exist with few constraints on their behavior and must create artificial restrictions in order to live cooperatively with others. It is not essential to his theory that men actually once lived in a natural state of freedom and then agreed to form governments; it is only essential that men do form agreements for a greater benefit they will share. He notes that certain monarchs, though not living in the wild, are in such a state of nature as they have relatively equal power and must reach agreements as to how to moderate their own behavior. He says, “All princes and rulers of independent governments all through the world, are in a state of nature, it is plain the world never was, nor ever will be, without numbers of men in that state. I have named all governors of independent communities, whether they are, or are not, in league with others: for it is not every compact that puts an end to the state of nature between men, but only this one of agreeing together mutually to enter into one community, and make one body politic.” In this state, men must agree to negotiate for mutual benefit. This so-called state of nature is similar to the condition transnational corporations find themselves in from time to time. Absent international regulations to guide or restrict their behavior, they make trade agreements amongst themselves to protect their interests.

Their state of nature, of course, does not include all the people, just as the scenario of the princes proposed by Locke did not include all men. This oversight is not insignificant. If the social contract can exclude peasants, women, and others, then it cannot legitimately be claimed to emerge from a state of rough equality in nature. This ability to exclude a wide range of humans from the class of “men” may help to explain how enlightenment traders, influenced by the theories of Locke, could ignore the interests of women, slaves, and foreign nationals, but these traders were ignoring Locke’s full description. Locke specified that even indigenous peoples have a right to what they have legitimately appropriated. He says, “Thus, the Law of reason makes the Deer, that Indian’s who hath killed it.” 

A crucial element of Locke’s theory relates to property. Locke claims that property rights emerge when a man mixes his labor with a resource. Locke acknowledges that God has given to all in common (this need not be taken literally, though it may be), but one must appropriate resources (such as a piece of fruit) to oneself alone in order to eat it. This being the case, Locke argues that surely resources belong to those who took the effort to extract them from the world’s commons. Locke saw the world in need of cultivation in order to improve the lot of humans, but he adds a provision that states, “For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common with others.” Locke noted that some may claim injury resulting from the property acquisition of others but declared that the world has more than enough resources for everyone. Still, he specified that it is just to take resources so long as “enough and as good” remain for others.

Man has by nature, then, the right to acquire property through labor and ensure his own survival and further development. No one has the authority to take away this right, and Locke opposed absolute monarchs and other forms of tyranny for this reason. It is impossible to speculate as to how Locke would respond to current resource shortages, the enormity of transnational corporations, or the effects of extreme and pervasive environmental degradation, but Locke assumed that the acquisition of resources left enough for others to acquire resources as well without harming anyone. Furthermore, polluting a stream shared by many in order to extract minerals from nearby soil violates any vision that Locke described or advocated. However, often the problem does not seem to be that developers and corporations feel it is morally acceptable to pollute property held by others. Rather, they do not recognize those sharing the commons to be the rightful property holders. The ability to disregard living and functioning humans as “non-persons” (people without respect for their full autonomy) enables many to proceed without considering their actions to be a source of violation of anyone’s rights. 

Property as the source of “rights” is so essential to libertarian thought that libertarian Murray Rothbard says, “Human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of ‘public policy’ or the ‘public good.’” Rothbard has taken a narrower view of rights than John Locke, but, indeed, basing rights on property makes determining who has any given right a somewhat simpler procedure than attempting to define rights as awarded by nature or the divine, even if the results are disappointing. It is the acquisition of property that grants one the right to speak freely, engage in private activities, or engage with acquaintances of one’s choosing. The person who owns no property is dispossessed of any rights whatsoever other than the right to sell one’s own body in the form of labor or otherwise. On the surface, this appears to be a clear demarcation of who is entitled to what rights, but it ignores even basic realities of the world. When an oil company makes a bargain with a government to drill for oil on a country’s soil, the company assumes the government, not the people who live on the land, has the right to sell the country’s resources. The land was obtained through conquest, not mixing labor with resources, and such acquisitions should be recognized as unjust. Unfortunately, libertarian writers ignore the plight of those whose land, resources, and freedom were stolen from them. 

A second source of inspiration for libertarians (especially politicians and conservative activists) is Adam Smith, who is considered both the father of economics and the father of capitalism itself. Libertarians focus on Smith’s claim that the market moves society towards greater utility (I will add more on Smith and utility in the next section) through the action of an “invisible hand.” This invisible hand, libertarians assume, replaces the need for any form of governmental oversight or regulation, which is not a claim put forth by Smith himself. 

Among more modern libertarians, philosopher Robert Nozick is notable as a colleague and near constant interlocutor for John Rawls, whose theories of social justice remain a formidable force among philosophers and anyone else interested in social justice. Nozick presented his fullest description of his libertarian theory in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. However, his final book, Invariances, includes some revisions and additions to his original theory. Nozick’s theories are powerful and provocative. He challenges those who disagree with him to justify any demand to conflate justice with fairness. For example, he claims it may not be fair that one person is more appealing to potential romantic partners than another person, but this fact alone does not establish injustice. This would only be unjust if the attractive person robbed the unattractive person of the ability to compete for prospective mates. This issue has particular relevance for me as the claim that affluent citizens have no obligations to the disadvantaged rests on the assumption that the wealthy have done nothing to cause the disadvantages of the poor.

A central feature of libertarian claims is the idea that bad luck, tragic as it may be, creates no injustice and no obligations on those with better luck. Nozick, in particular, does assert that unjust acquisitions create a obligation for rectification. If property has been stolen from someone, that person is entitled to reparation or corrective action to ameliorate the person’s degraded position in life. Libertarian writers are quite generous in ascribing the wealth of property owners to hard work and free choices while assigning the blame for poverty to bad luck or lack of initiative. It is largely the failure of libertarians to acknowledge the benefits of privileges enjoyed by the affluent that frustrates meaningful dialogue between libertarians and liberal thinkers. 

Human Development Approach

Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum are the most prominent proponents of the Human Development Approach, which is based on the development of human capabilities. From this perspective, justice is realized when individuals have the minimum resources necessary to realize their capabilities to the fullest extent possible, whatever those capabilities may be. The full functioning of individuals is not required; it is only necessary that individuals have the freedom to function as they so desire. Nussbaum says capabilities “are not just the abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment.” Adults may or may not choose to use their capabilities to fully function, but Nussbaum feels we have an obligation to ensure functioning in children as failure to do so can limit their capabilities later in life. Amartya Sen summarizes the Human Development Approach this way, “The idea of freedom also respects our being free to determine what we want, what we value and ultimately what we decide to choose.” While emphasizing capabilities, this approach rejects measuring social justice in terms of resource allocation, utility, or the negative sense of freedom proffered by libertarians. However, maximizing capabilities is in effect an effort to maximize autonomy of individuals. A libertarian would only be able to accept this theory if an individual is robbed of his or her autonomy (and capabilities) through the actions of others. 

Nussbaum acknowledges Aristotle as the first person to base a theory of social justice on capabilities, noting that Aristotle sought to create a society that maximized human flourishing even if he did not share her egalitarian views. She says, “Aristotle believed that political planners need to understand what human beings require for a flourishing life.” Aristotle wrote his ethics as a guide to help community leaders design an effective society. He strongly opposed the idea that the pursuit of wealth was consistent with virtue or a highly functioning society. In Nussbaum’s words, Aristotle felt “political planning would be utterly debased and deformed were wealth to be understood as an end in itself.” Thus, the capabilities approach, in line with Aristotle, rejects wealth both as a measure of justice and as a motivator to achieve justice. 

For justice to occur, according to the capabilities approach, it may be that some resources must be redirected to the least advantaged, but income distribution alone is not an adequate measure of justice, as it is possible to have income but still lack the conditions that develop the essential capabilities. Nussbaum sees 10 capabilities that are essential to justice: First, is the ability to live until one’s life comes to a natural end. Second is the ability to have good health, nourishment, and shelter. Third is the ability to move freely from place to place secure from bodily assault. Fourth is the ability to use the senses, imagination, and thought. Fifth is the ability to experience a full range of emotions. Sixth is the ability to use practical reason. Seventh is the ability to live in social relationship with others free from discrimination and oppression. Eighth is to live in relation to nature and other species. Ninth is the ability to play and enjoy recreation. Finally, the tenth is the ability to control one’s own environment.

John Rawls and the Social Contract

Nussbaum, Sen, and Nozick all spend considerable time discussing the theories of Rawls. Fairness and the notion of an ideal social contract are central features of Rawls’s theory. He tries to imagine the conditions necessary for a society that all rational members would agree to join. He rejects Utilitarianism as it fails in this first test of justice, potentially sacrificing the happiness of a few for the benefits of the majority. Violations of individuals for the greater good violate their dignity on Kantian grounds, which Rawls finds unacceptable. Rawls claims justice is achieved when a given society emphasizes fairness, liberty, and opportunity.

Rawls does agree with Mill and the libertarians that liberty must be maximized in a just society, but he, apparently, rejects the close association libertarians make between liberty and property. In order to achieve a fair distribution of resources, Rawls suggests ensuring equal opportunity for all but with special protection for the least advantaged. On Rawls’s view, income disparities are just only to the extent that they benefit the least advantaged. He says, “Assuming the framework of institutions required by equal liberty and fair equality of opportunity, the higher expectations of those better situated are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society.” By creating an educated and talented pool of citizens, unacceptable economic disparities between the most and least well off will be impossible. While he does not demand equality, Rawls seeks a distribution of resources such that, “Society is not so divided that one fairly small sector controls the preponderance of productive resources.” Rawls advocates a redistribution of resources through taxation to create a safety net for the least advantaged. Libertarians consider this redistribution unjust and coercive as they closely correlate property and liberty. 

Ironically, those who advocate the Human Development Approach also find Rawls’s connection of property and justice to be objectionable. Nussbaum and Sen point out that raw data regarding income or property cannot give a full picture of justice in society. If individuals do not have the liberty to pursue their own goals because of discrimination, poor health, or lack of education, justice is not possible, even if income increases. Further Nussbaum notes that Rawls does not adequately address justice for the disabled, members of foreign societies, or non-human animals. Further, Nussbaum and Sen both insist that resource allocation alone cannot adequately address the needs of individuals; true human flourishing requires a diversity of abilities that cannot be reduced to a single measure. Despite these criticisms, Rawls, Nussbaum, and Sen share concern for the least advantaged. The Human Development Approach is more of an expansion of Rawls’s goals than a repudiation of his overall theory.

Varieties of Liberty

In one way or another, all the competing theories I have discussed so far place a high value on liberty. Libertarians hold that a lack of coercion is the only condition necessary for just conditions to prevail. Rawls wants the greatest liberty compatible with equal liberty for all but places some restraints on liberty to the extent that the well off must sacrifice some of their liberty (to the extent that liberty really equals property) in order to preserve the greater good for everyone concerned. Finally, the capabilities approach holds that liberty is a sufficient measure of justice only when individuals have the necessary abilities to make free choices not limited by poor education, health, or lack of opportunity. 

Isaiah Berlin noticed that discussions of liberty often become confused, as liberty seems to imply at least two distinct meanings.  In what Berlin identifies as the “negative” concept of liberty, an individual is free so long as no one interferes with him or her. Berlin denies that this amounts to any kind of justice, saying, “To offer political rights, or safeguards against intervention by the State, to men who are half-naked, illiterate, underfed and diseased is to mock their condition; they need medical help or education before they can understand, or make use of, an increase in their freedom.” He notes that it offends liberals that some should enjoy greater liberty because they have exploited others. The positive concept of liberty, in contrast, is the freedom for an individual to choose what to become and to be self-directed. He cautions that liberty cannot be the sole value of society as simply maximizing liberty is not possible. He says, “The extent of a man’s, or a people’s, liberty to choose to live as he or they desire must be weighted against the claims of many other values, of which equality, or justice, or happiness, or security, or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples.”

Berlin helps us to understand how the libertarians’ focus on negative liberty fails to engage those who are more concerned with positive liberties such as advocates for the capabilities approach. One way of resolving the disagreement would be to challenge the distinction between positive and negative liberty, essentially undoing the work of Berlin. I prefer a more modest approach; my claim is that when positive liberty is lacking, in many, cases, it is the result of suppression of individual autonomy in the past. For example, global conquests for natural resources, slavery, war, economic embargoes, and environmental degradation have deprived people of their ability to act in any positive manner. Violations of their negative rights in the past, not their poor choices, have denied individuals of the ability to make positive choices in the present. However, some people have limited liberty as a result of neither violations of their negative rights nor bad choices; rather, their liberty is limited by disability that results only from bad luck. Nussbaum does well to address some of the cases where inadequate positive liberties result from pure bad luck, such as in the case of natural disability or accidents at birth. Shlomi Segall has explored the relationship of luck to justice even further. The case of bad luck presents a particular challenge to both libertarian and social contract theories, and this is one area where the human development approach fills a gap left by both libertarian theory and Rawlsian contract theory. Nonetheless, libertarians, even if they reject concerns of bad luck and disability, cannot ignore the historical causes of inadequate positive freedom such as those resulting from conquests and slavery; in other words, direct violations of negative freedom and rights result in injustice, regardless of which theory is applied. Ultimately, promoting human capabilities is a matter of rectifying historical injustice, not a matter of providing charity to the least advantaged. 

As mentioned briefly above, Nozick’s “Marriage Lottery” (not his term) provides a test case. Nozick imagines 26 men and 26 women who want to get married to a partner of the opposite sex. Each of the men and each of the women can be ranked from A to Z based on desirability. As a matter of free choice, the most desirable man and the most desirable woman have the greatest number of choices of potential, willing partners. The less desirable one is, the fewer choices one has. Further, as choices diminish they also become less desirable so that the least desirable man and the least desirable woman have no other choice than to choose each other or forgo marriage altogether. Nozick claims that the less desirable men and women have fewer choices (decreased liberty) but that no injustice occurs, as the more desirable partners did nothing to rob them of their liberties. Nozick’s example ignores the causes of desirability or the lack of it in marriage partners. 

I will suggest that partners are most desirable when they are in good health, fairly affluent, and, of course, physically attractive. Some of these conditions may be a result of pure luck through genetics, and others may be a result of poor choices that lead to poor health or poverty, but Nozick ignores the impact of willful acts of harm that result in poor health and poverty for others. If Mr. X and Ms. X rank at the bottom of potential marriage partners because their family wealth was stolen from their ancestors by the ancestors of Mr. B and Ms. B or their health was destroyed by pollution from Mr. A’s family factory, then the X’s have a claim against the A’s and the B’s in the list. Sorting out the complexities of this injustice would be impossible on a case-by-case basis, but libertarians must concede, in order to be consistent, that efforts should be made to prevent such injustices from occurring. In order to ensure that individual autonomy and economic liberty, regulation, whether social or legal, must protect individual opportunities to pursue health, economic engagement, and well-being. Further, recognizing the effect past injustice has had on the economic standing and capabilities of oppressed groups, corrective action is required to restore individuals to full standing and autonomy. 

Ideal and Non-Ideal Theories

Utopian visions, no matter how unrealistic, serve a purpose. By imagining an ideal state we can better distinguish which features of our world are consistent with an ideal state, which are inconsistent but unavoidable, and which are inconsistent and alterable. Descriptions vary, but the ideal state generally exists with an absence of suffering, although some theodicists note the need for suffering in order to appreciate the good. Arguments in defense of suffering aside, heavenly descriptions of perfect bliss do not include pain and suffering. In this ideal state, problems of social justice do not arise. David Hume notes that if nature had managed to meet every imaginable human need, “every other social virtue would flourish, and receive tenfold increase; but the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of.”

An ideal theory of social justice does not attempt to respond to conditions on the ground, but begins with a focus on what can be accomplished from scratch. Beginning with an empty theory, one might assume what can be achieved under what Rawls refers to as “favorable circumstances.” Under these circumstances, the ideal theory is a conception of justice in a well-ordered society with strict compliance to moral demands of the theory. Once an ideal theory is established, Rawls claims we can begin to work on the details of a non-ideal theory to address what principles should be adopted under “less happy” conditions of the world we now inhabit. We must judge how just any society is by how it compares to the ideal theory of justice, but non-ideal theory must be invoked when “natural limitations” make the ideal unattainable. Deriving the principles of an ideal theory is challenging, but sorting through all the natural limitations on ideal justice is unending as new conditions constantly arise as in times of natural disasters and civil unrest. 

Working from an ideal state of affairs down to a non-ideal theory is certainly constructive, but it is also possible to approach the problem from the bottom up. One can imagine, in a sense, “perfect” or “ideal” injustice and begin to derive the most expedient methods to relieve the agony of such conditions, imagining the elimination of the most egregious forms of injustice until a more just state is achieved. This is something of a negative project, beginning with a negative state and working to its elimination. The advantage of this approach is that it enables us to focus on the greatest abuses of justice and begin to develop a non-ideal theory to improve the lives of the most desperate people in the world. Societies can be measured not by how they fall short of the idea but by how they rise above the negative ideal. This is similar to Arthur Schopenhauer’s approach to the problem of good and evil. Against the conception that evil is the absence of pain (such as suggested by Augustine, although Schopenhauer takes aim at Leibniz rather than Augustine), Schopenhauer says, 

I know of no greater absurdity than that of most metaphysical systems that declare evil to be something negative; whereas it is precisely that which is positive and makes itself felt. On the other hand, that which is good, in other words, all happiness and satisfaction, is negative, that is, the mere elimination of a desire and the ending of pain. 

By conceiving of justice as the absence of injustice, we are able to focus more narrowly on the most egregious forms of injustice and work toward an ideal state through the systematic elimination of positive harm. This negative approach to justice cannot do all the work required to achieve a just state; it only addresses the most immediate demands of current circumstances. It is important to replace a leaky roof on the house you are occupying, but it may be essential to extinguish the fire in the main living area of the house first. 

The other advantage of the negative approach to justice is that it confronts perpetrators of injustice on their own terms. For example, Ruth Faden and Madison Powers attempt to develop a theory of social justice that combines theory with empirical data regarding the interplay between social and economic relationships with health and other aspects of well-being. They argue that considerations of justice must be viewed holistically rather than in discrete spheres. They assert that philosophical reflection alone can never provide a robust account of justice. Only through empirical research, they insist, can actions promoting justice be fully informed. They summarize their conclusion saying, 

Our hope is that progress in social justice, public health, and health policy can be made by integrating a number of strands of philosophical reflection, political theory, social science theory, and social and biomedical research in ways that piggy-back on the accomplishments of a variety of contributors from multiple disciplines and intellectual traditions.” 

Surely they are correct that data and interdisciplinary efforts are needed to develop sound policy to promote justice in health and heath care. 

While some may agree that a truly just society looks different from what now exists and that making the effort to bring about better conditions is good, they may also argue that efforts to improve global human functioning are supererogatory and may be left to those heroic individuals who wish to undertake more effort than can ever be required. This is not to agree that such efforts are supererogatory but only to focus on conditions that result from actions that cause direct and identifiable harm. 

A negative approach answers the arguments of libertarians on their own terms with the aim of hoisting them on their own petard. Libertarian theorists in the United States and Europe argue that attempts to regulate trade and global markets amount to violations of liberty for those engaged in global business. Attempts to alleviate poverty, they say, violate the liberty of some individuals in order to grant entitlements to others who have not earned them. Their arguments stand only if they have gained their wealth and relative power without benefitting from the human rights violations of others. Regulating or modifying global trade is not a matter of shifting resources from the deserving to the undeserving; instead, it is a matter of restoring the ability of victims of human rights abuses to act autonomously. For example, Jan Narveson claims we only need to help others if their condition is our fault. Narveson assumes that starvation is a product of bad luck and corrupt foreign governments and not the result of interaction with western institutions and corporations. Even if it were true that starvation is the product of bad luck, many justice theorists would reject Narveson’s claim that starvation makes no moral demands on the affluent. Shlomi Segall encapsulates the view of so-called “luck egalitarians” by saying, “It is unjust for individuals to be worse off than others due to outcomes that it would have been unreasonable to expect them to avoid.” Segall advocates giving priority to those who are worse off but bear no responsibility for their condition. My approach here is more lenient than Segall’s. On my view, priority will go to those who are not only not responsible for their situation but for those who would be in a much better situation without deliberate outside interference. I suggest this only in order to stay close to a libertarian ideal and follow it to its natural conclusions. 

Implicit in Narveson’s argument is the assumption that if “we,” citizens of western democracies, were to be responsible for suffering from starvation and disease, we would be required to take action to rectify the situation. Rather than recognizing the role affluent nations have played in creating health disparities, however, he denies that they even exist, saying, “They [contemporary philosophers] write as though people by the millions are starving daily. It is of interest to realize that they are, generally speaking, wrong.” Responding to maximalist theories of justice, such as those of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, Narveson and other libertarians claim that injustice may well exist in developing countries but that such a state creates no obligation on citizens of affluent nations. For purposes of argument, I will accept the libertarian claim that no one is responsible for creating justice in foreign states, so long as affluent nations have no effect on such states. There may be a few isolated and unjust states in the world whose citizens must solve their own problems or hope that someone more powerful will be moved by compassion or otherwise to help them; however, most people in the world will find that their condition is directly affected by the actions of affluent nations.

Trade globalization, beginning with the actions of the British East India Corporation, has proceeded from conquest rather than consensual agreements with individuals in foreign lands. Just acquisitions of land and resources can occur only when free, prior, and informed consent is obtained from all who depend on the resources for their livelihood. This requirement does not apply only in foreign lands, of course, but foreign conquest is an obvious example of violations of individual liberty. The wealth of the United States depends on land and resources once owned by aboriginal people. Further development occurred at the expense of slaves, who were denied control even over their own bodies. Once we have established that affluent nations create the conditions of injustice in developing countries, we are faced with a question of who, precisely, is responsible for correcting the injustice. We may take a position that international organizations are responsible for behaving justly but that individual citizens are exempted from responsibility so long as we do not intentionally inflict harm on others. Peter Unger acknowledges that governments could do much to save the lives of their citizens and that not doing so reflects poorly on them as moral agents, but he asks, “What is the relevance of assessing your own behavior and mine? There isn’t any. For we know full well that, for all the governments will do, each year millions of Third World kids will die from easily preventable causes.” Institutions may create harmful schemes through trade agreements, laws, or practices, but individuals, even if not part of those institutions must not, as Thomas Pogge states, “cooperate in the imposition of a coercive institutional order that avoidably leaves human rights unfulfilled without making reasonable efforts to protect its victims and promote institutional reform.” 

Depending on how we interpret “cooperation” with unjust institutional order, the moral demand Pogge suggests could be extreme. If this requires individuals to refrain from purchasing products that result from unjust institutional arrangements, then moral individuals may themselves become impoverished and diseased. Utilitarians such as Peter Unger and Peter Singer specify that individuals are responsible to help only to the extent that they do not reduce themselves to the same level as those they are helping. For Singer, the stronger version of his theory would require citizens to give until they reach a level of what he calls “marginal utility,” which is “the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift.” Singer notes that whether we should follow a stronger or weaker version of his theory is purely academic as most affluent nations consider one percent of GNP an acceptable level of foreign aid. The Utilitarian view holds that our obligations are the same to all individuals without regard to country of origin or residence or their level of interaction with us. The responsibility to aid others arises from their suffering and their need rather than from our relation to them. 

Libertarians can see no obligations in cases where we live in isolation from others, but recognize obligations in cases where we make others worse off. While there may be some in the world who are not affected by our actions and policies, Iris Marion Young suggests, “Far better to begin from a more objective stance: there is much injustice in the world and we contribute to its production, and it may seem more than any of us can rectify, even together with others.” The fact that a task is daunting, however, does not relieve us of any moral obligation. Young also rejects the idea that workers suffering from harsh working conditions are responsible for their own condition if they voluntarily accepted their work. She says, “If many workers endure these violations without complaint because they desperately need those earnings, this is a measure of the coercive pressures of their circumstances rather than of their consent.” Young’s claim is not that we are obligated to help others merely because they are human and suffering; her claim is that we are obligated to help them because they are harmed by an unjust system. We cannot escape our responsibility to others at a distance, she says, because, “Affluent people in affluent countries, in particular, participate in the imposition of injustice to the extent that we are the supporters and benefit from a global institutional order that helps cause and perpetuate world poverty and inequality.” Our responsibility, then, is not merely to offer aid but to restructure the institutional order. By my account, a minimal and non-ideal theory demands a radical revision of current institutional policies, agreements, and practices. 

Bioethics and Social Justice

The term bioethics, as conceived by Van Rensselaer Potter, originally comprised concerns for global health, the environment, and sustainability. Rather quickly, however, conversations in bioethics turned primarily to questions of autonomy and focused almost entirely on doctor-patient relationships. Gradually, bioethicists have begun to focus on broader issues in part, surely, because the narrow topics of early bioethics discussions became uninteresting to those participating but also because the reemergence of infectious disease and pandemics, threats from environmental degradation, and global hunger are affecting health in ways that cannot be ignored. Bioethicists now include concerns for both patients and those who are not fortunate enough to have access to healthcare and, therefore, are never able to become patients. Understandably, much debate centers on access to health care. Indeed, those without access to health care have limited freedom and limited capabilities, but I would like to expand the focus on health care to a general concern for a right to health not harmed by the actions of others. I will examine recent commentary from Nussbaum, Sen, and Madison Powers and Ruth Faden.

Martha Nussbaum

Nussbaum has written many works related to capabilities, of course, but it is her Frontiers of Justice that relates most closely to discussions in bioethics.  In this work, Nussbaum attempts to expand on the social contract theories of John Rawls by focusing on capabilities as a foundation of justice, addressing concerns for the disabled, members of other nations, and non-human animals. John Rawls addressed the issues related to nationality somewhat in The Law of Peoples, and he at least mentioned the problem of the disabled in his Theory of Justice. For the most part, Nussbaum is respectful of the theories of Rawls, including his rejection of Utilitarianism to achieve concern for the least advantaged, but she also recognizes the important contributions of Utilitarian writers. In particular, she values the Utilitarian assertion that each life counts for equal consideration. The satisfaction of peasants is of equal concern to the satisfaction of kings. She says, “People who denigrate utilitarianism as cold-hearted or in league with big business often wrongly forget its radical origins.” Perhaps her strongest objection to Utilitarianism is that it does not recognize the effect of  “adaptive preferences.” In other words, some people may stop wanting what they know is out of reach, so they learn to be content within their current social conditions. Nussbaum says, “By defining the social goal in terms of satisfaction of actual preferences, utilitarian approaches thus often reinforce the status quo, which may be very unjust.” Libertarian theories, seeking only to protect individual autonomy and liberty, fail to confront problems of disability that impair autonomous functioning, though Nozick acknowledges that they may be addressed as morality progresses. For example, he says, “Principles might get formulated about behavior toward helpless beings with whom no mutually cooperative interaction is possible (fetuses, animals) or to currently nonexistent beings (future generations).” It is striking that he does not include mental impairment in this example. If we fail to address the needs of those who cannot make independent and mutually beneficial choices, we have failed to secure even minimal justice. 

Nussbaum begins her section on global inequality by saying, “Any theory of justice that proposes political principles defining basic human entitlements ought to be able to confront these inequalities and the challenge they pose, in a world in which the power of the global market and of multinational corporations has considerably eroded the power and autonomy of nations.” In this section, she criticizes social contract theories, but she says she chooses them for their advantages over competing theories such as Utilitarianism. Contract theories rely on cooperation to mutual advantage, but she rejects this as a basis for a theory of global justice. Another obstacle for the theory of social contract is the changing nature of sovereignty. Nussbaum notes, “National sovereignty is under threat from a variety of directions, above all from the influence of multinational corporations and the global economic structure.” Nussbaum instead favors the theory of Grotius, which claims that all entitlements derive from the sociability of the human being. She considers several theories from Rawls, Thomas Pogge, and Onora O’Neill. She finds that it is easy to determine the needs of humans in other countries. Indeed, she has provided a list of them in the beginning of her book. The problem, she says, comes from assessing what duties are borne by what actors. If the answer is that we all have a duty to provide all the people of the world with their minimum needs, then we meet a problem. We cannot have a duty to do what it is impossible for us to do. For example, she says we cannot cure the HIV epidemic in Africa or feed all the poor in India. Rather, she says, we should do what we can to secure the 10 capabilities to all the people of the world. Otherwise, we do not live in a “decent and minimally just world.”

The capabilities approach seeks to secure access to the 10 capabilities she lists throughout the world. Her approach will work in tandem with efforts to secure rights. The advantage of capabilities for measuring justice in a society is that material needs may vary from country to country, so that wealth or even wealth distribution may not give an actual picture of life for the citizens of the country. More important than what people have is what they can do, if they choose to do it. The capabilities approach will emphasize creating access to education, health care, housing, and suitable labor conditions. She notes that these items are not discussed in Rawls’s conception of international justice. 

Nonetheless, she notes that she does privilege capabilities over functioning, while others feel that success in creating a just society should be measured by actual functioning. Still, she says, “My own view is that people should be given ample opportunities to lead a healthy lifestyle, but the choice should be left up to them; they should not be penalized for unhealthy choices.” Nussbaum consistently argues throughout the book that children should be nurtured to fully develop their capabilities. Care and education of children are a necessary component of any theory of justice. She says, “For children . . . functioning may be made the goal in many areas. Thus I have defended compulsory education, compulsory health care, and other aspects of compulsory functioning.” For adults, justice demands only that capabilities are ensured, but Nussbaum sees children as an exception. Without maximizing a child’s functioning, the resulting adult cannot be guaranteed as full a set of capabilities as possible. Consistent with libertarian concerns, Nussbaum is concerned with ensuring autonomy of both individuals and nations, but her aim is to maximize autonomy rather than simply protecting individuals from assaults on their liberty. 

She next turns to her approach for implementing a system of global justice. Knowing that many people have unmet needs forces us to ask who has an obligation to meet their needs. The short answer is that everyone shares the responsibility, but it is unreasonable for any one person to shoulder the burden, which is not to claim that the efforts of individuals do not have a cumulative effect. Nonetheless, Nussbaum turns to the possibility of an institutional approach. It is immediately obvious that a world state could implement the changes necessary to guarantee access to human capabilities, but she immediately rejects this idea as dangerous. Governments serve to keep one another in check in certain ways. A global state would have no such restraints. As a result, she suggests that global institutional structure should be thin and decentralized. She sees a world where governments, non-governmental organizations, and corporations all have an obligation to promote human capabilities. One of her principles for global structure has a particular resonance for this project. Often the actions of states are dictated by transnational corporations who make exploitive business deals with countries that often experience desperate poverty. Nussbaum says, “Multinational corporations have responsibilities for promoting human capabilities in the regions in which they operate.” While Nussbaum is claiming that corporations are obligated to improve capabilities rather than exploiting a lack of capabilities, she could make a stronger case for the moral demand based on a history of corporate actions that diminish the capabilities of people living in such regions. For example, if a corporation takes the land people live on to grow or fish for food and then offers only the opportunity to work in unhealthy and dangerous conditions, then individuals have lost their freedom, health, and security. For trade to be mutually beneficial, corporations are not obligated to promote the greatest capabilities and autonomy possible, but they certainly must not rob individuals of their autonomy, including economic freedom. Martha Nussbaum’s assertion that corporations have an obligation to promote capabilities will probably not resonate with libertarians, but the history of corporate conquest and theft obligates them to repair the capabilities of their victims, not to promote capabilities out of a commitment to creating a more ideal world. 

Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom is also based on capabilities, but he argues that the poorest people will benefit most from development, which requires not only interaction with the market but education, democracy, and individual agency. Like Nussbaum, Sen has expanded the areas of concern explored by John Rawls. Development as Freedom, of course, focuses on global concerns. Some might assume that by development he means only economic development, but for him development means promoting economic development, education, democracy, women’s agency, and human rights. The book is based on lectures Sen gave to the World Bank, which is not a reason for optimism that his goals can be achieved. He states in the preface that the World Bank has not “invariably” been his “favorite organization.” He goes on to say that he offers the book to the general public for discussion that will perhaps motivate people to pursue social change. The book has been so influential that its contribution to social discourse cannot be denied. We can only hope that members of the World Bank will work toward a more just global order. 

Sen’s argument is so full of information and complexity that it is difficult to discuss it without repeating it point by point. Anyway, the evidence for promoting capabilities is compelling but complicated. For example, Sen points out again and again that famines do not happen under democracies. As examples, he mentions famines in pre-democratic Ireland and China, and claims that no famine has occurred in a country ruled democratically. Sen therefore claims that democracy is essential to preventing famine. At the same time, education reduces fertility and promotes economic development and human freedom. China has provided education, forcefully reduced fertility, and generated impressive economic development all in the absence of democracy. India has a putative democratic government, but education, economic development, and equality of women lag behind China. The comparison of India and China indicates that simply holding elections is not enough to promote a full range of capabilities. Some parts of India, especially Kerala, have been successful in ameliorating the situation, improving education and economic prospects. Other parts of India have had less success, but, despite widespread poverty, he says there have been no Indian famines. 

Amartya Sen did not specifically address people with disabilities in Development as Freedom, but he does address it in The Idea of Justice. He notes that people with disabilities face two related problems: they often have reduced earning potential and simultaneously require more income to maintain an acceptable standard of living. Sen notes that social justice theorists who focus too much attention on income distribution underestimate the level of inequality faced by people with disabilities. In responding to disability, we must consider ways to diminish the incidence of disability and also to diminish the effects of disabilities that exist. Sen accuses Rawls of failing to recognize that people with different circumstances and abilities have different opportunities to convert resources into actual capabilities. Sen also notes that it is essential to make a “focus on functionings and capabilities” a necessary part of thinking of how to set up an institutional structure, rather than leaving it for the legislative stage as Rawls suggests. 

Sen makes a point of distinguishing between theoretical capabilities and what someone is actually able to do. He suggests three possible cases for disabled person A. In case one she is not helped and cannot leave her house. In case two, she is helped by a social security system and people with goodwill and is therefore able to move about freely. In case three, she is assisted by well-paid servants who take care of her needs and enable her to move about freely. He notes that under his capabilities approach, she is free in cases two and three. He emphasizes that it matters what she “is actually capable of doing.” He says that she is also unfree in case two under the “republican” or “neo-Roman” theory that holds that one is free only when no one can eliminate a person’s abilities even when they a want to. In case two, her freedom is what he calls “context dependent,” as it depends on the goodwill of others.

For Sen, economic development is essential for the development of human capabilities, but economic development must come with the cultivation of education, freedom, and democracy. Focus on economic gains alone can actually stunt development of human capabilities. When we talk of human capital, we must see humans more broadly. He says, “It is important to take note . . . of the instrumental role of capabilities expansion in bringing about social change (going well beyond economic change).” As an example, he says that female education reduces fertility rates and improves family relations, public discourse, and child mortality. Sen provides a compelling argument that economic development is necessary to the development of human capabilities, but it must be accompanied by education and expansion of personal freedoms.  In turn, improvements in education and personal freedom enhance the prospects for economic growth and development. 

Powers and Faden

In Social Justice: The Moral Foundation of Public Health and Health Policy, bioethicists Madison Powers and Ruth Faden hope to develop a theory for promoting public health and health policy that gives guidance on how to prioritize the need to redress inequalities.  In contrast to Rawls, they hope to develop a nonideal theory that addresses empirical judgments of inequality. They hope, also, to develop a theory that considers justice in terms that go beyond mere distribution of basic goods. They attempt to assess the justice of social systems by how well they address six dimensions of well-being. The six dimensions of well-being they propose include health, personal security, reasoning, respect, and attachment. Powers and Faden aim to create a theory that will enable us to set priorities for health care in actual practice.

To do so, they look at actual cases of injustice and offer an analysis of how promoting the six dimensions of well-being can help guide policy makers and others in setting priorities for health and health care. Powers and Faden have many points of agreement with Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, but they seek to establish a theory based on actual functioning rather than a capability to function, which is endorsed by Nussbaum and Sen. Nussbaum, of course, acknowledges some circumstances where actual functioning is more important than mere capabilities, especially in the case of children. 

Faden and Powers aim to provide justice for many of the world’s underserved populations. On the question of global justice, Powers and Faden are not entirely silent, but they tend to address justice within national borders rather than across them. They note that health disparities exist between rich and poor countries and demand collective action to rectify the situation. They mention that the life expectancy of a 15-year old boy in Uganda is 20 years shorter than the life expectancy of a 15-year old boy in the United States. They attribute this difference to the poverty of nations or to corrupt governments. They go on to say, “While the severity of poverty in the developing world is of staggering dimensions, poverty is also present in unfortunate abundance in the world’s wealthy nations.” They mention that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have forced some countries to dismantle public welfare programs. The model Powers and Faden propose could guide policy considerations on a global scale. It is more difficult for individuals not involved in international trade and global finance to imagine ways to improve global functioning, but the guidelines Powers and Faden present would help to determine how we measure success in eliminating global disparities. Unlike Nussbaum and Sen, however, their theory comes into conflict with libertarian theory as they seek to ensure functioning and not just the ability to function. Nussbaum in particular accepts the libertarian tenet that adult individuals have the right to decide what they will do with their own bodies even if it means choosing to not function at all. 


While I attempt to accept the minimalist claims of the libertarians, I also argue for an approach that is more expansive in its reach than either libertarians or Rawlsian theorists would endorse. My argument is that many, though not all, of the goals of the Human Development Approach and Utilitarianism can be justified through concerns for liberty. The impact of human choices on liberty is much greater than libertarians assume. For libertarians, individual freedom arises from what one owns, and everyone is entitled to a degree of liberty arising from one’s ownership of one’s own body. Even without tangible property, each individual is entitled to make decisions regarding his or her own body and to enter into agreements to sell one’s labor. The libertarian approach assumes that individuals suffering from poverty or disease are responsible for improving their own situation so long as no one has interfered with their exercise of free choice. Based on the assumption that human misery is primarily the result of the victims’ own poor choices and occasional bad luck, libertarians dismiss obligations of the wealthy to the disadvantaged as supererogatory duties at most. More often, libertarians reject the idea that anything needs to be done for the least advantaged. Libertarians do concede, however, that poverty resulting from theft or slavery demands remedy. 

Given their own logic, the state of affairs in the world is made through a series of free exchanges leading to mutual benefit for those involved in the exchange. To assume that the current global distribution of wealth in the world results from free choices and just acquisition ignores the history of the development of Europe and the United States. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith enumerates enterprises that might require special protection from the government. He says, “An ordinary store or counting-house could give little security to the goods of the merchants who trade to the western coast of Africa. To defend them from the barbarous natives, it is necessary that the place where they are deposited, should be, in some measure, fortified.” It does not occur to Smith that the “barbarous natives” are the rightful owners of the resources contained within Africa. Unfortunately, many contemporary traders and neoliberal theorists seem equally blind to the entitlements of indigenous peoples. In examining the meaning of the term “neoliberalism,” Stanley Fish concluded, “Neoliberalism is a pejorative way of referring to a set of economic/political policies based on a strong faith in the beneficent effects of free markets.” Whether neoliberalism is pejorative or not, I take it to be an economic philosophy that sees regulation of markets as a problem and not a solution to global poverty or inequality. I once had sympathetic students express remorse that Africans do not have enough resources to lift their citizens out of poverty. I pointed out that extractive industries make a great deal of profit from resources residing in Africa but that Africans frequently do not control the resources where they live. 

Furthermore, the free choice of empowered traders often have consequences (sometimes referred to as externalities) for those not at the bargaining table. For example, an infinitesimally small number of individuals may deliberately choose a disability or illness, and more have disabilities as a matter of bad luck, but more suffer from the actions of outside parties. Disabilities and illnesses may result from environmental degradation, poorly designed medications, or other forms of mistreatment out of the control of the individual. To be consistent, libertarians must passionately protect the ability of these individuals to make their own choices about their lives. 

Nozick proffers four levels of ethics: respect, responsibility, caring, and light. On his view, only the ethics of respect should be mandatory. The ethics of respect will mandate, “respecting another (adult) person’s life and autonomy, forbidding murder and enslavement, restricting interference with a person’s domain of choice, and issuing in a more general set of (what have been termed) negative rights.” Higher levels of ethics comprise concern for the value of others, compassion and understanding, love for others (ahimsa), and, finally, devotion to truth, beauty, and holiness. Nozick states, “I do not say that the ethics of each higher layer is more obligatory. It is just lovelier, and more elevating.” He fails to consider how devotion to the first level might entail concern for the higher levels. Showing concern for the life and autonomy of the individual requires also a commitment to understanding others and, of course, demands a commitment to truth. Be that as it may, the level of respect requires us to protect the autonomy of individuals by ensuring no one is robbed of the opportunity to live or develop their capabilities by the actions of others. We must also ensure that our free choices do not impair the choices available to others, regardless of whether they are rational adults, children, or adults who may have impaired rationality. Given that some are unable to make free and informed choices, we are obligated to assume they would never choose a life of misery or early death. Failure to protect their basic interests by preventing actions that rob them of a life free from disease and disability violates the first principle of respect.

The problem, of course, is that some individuals have no ability to enter into agreements to promote mutual benefit, and such agreements are the basis for ethics and morality for Nozick. Further, Nussbaum points out that all humans lack this ability at various stages during their lives. Nozick does note that moral progress can occur when “conditions change so that an extension of cooperative coordination to include this group becomes feasible and desirable, in that the previous group of cooperators, or a power subgroup of it, realizes (or believes) that this extension is in its own interests.” In this area, he sees the possibility of concern for animals and fetuses; notably, he does not mention persons with disabilities. 

Although he describes this as moral progress, he does not feel that anyone is obligated to widen the circle of cooperation; it is just nice when someone does. Narveson also has this peculiar view of morality that is not obligatory. Narveson says, “The tendency and desire to do good for others is a virtue. Moreover, it is a moral virtue, for we all have an interest in the general acquisition of this quality.” Like Nozick, Narveson denies that we are obligated to be moral or seek moral progress. Nozick describes the progression to higher levels of ethics by saying, “We then respond to these capacities in others as we respond to valuable things in general, appreciating them, preserving them, nurturing them, protecting them.” While some may not be able to offer anything beneficial in a trading agreement, they are capable of suffering the consequences of the free choices of others. It is not always possible to pinpoint the cause of disabilities, but certainly environmental conditions are often associated with birth defects and disease. Failure to protect individuals from the consequences of irresponsible actions is to rob them of the ability to enter into mutually beneficial agreements. Also, individuals who choose to become parents or even choose actions that result in unintended parenthood must assume responsibility for the wellbeing of their children. However, disease and disability arising from the actions of others entitle both the parents and children to rectification. Because of the lack of specificity in cases of disease and disability, prevention of harm and rectification for past abuses of autonomy will have much in common with the promotion of capabilities that Sen and Nussbaum support.  

This exchange of benefit also applies to persons living in distant parts of the globe, regardless of their capabilities as they are forced to share the earth’s air, water, and minerals with us, regardless of choice. As the quality of the environment affects the ability of individuals to pursue their own choices for a life free from disease and disability, libertarians should strive to protect the air, water, and food quality of the global population. When such goods are privately held, the owners are entitled only to actions that do not affect others who have not chosen the consequences. If I own a bottle of water, I am entitled to contaminate it only to the degree that I do no harm to the water or health of others who have not chosen to participate. This is consistent with the libertarian emphasis on providing security for citizens.

It also recognizes the contribution others have made to our own accumulation of capital and comfort. Choices of consumers and business people in affluent nations, especially through the actions of transnational corporations, force exchanges on individuals without any deliberate choice on their part, which violates the core tenets of libertarianism. Narveson seems to concede this point by saying, “If you live downstream from me, and I decide to dam up the river and divert the water elsewhere, then I have deprived you of your water and must compensate you, by supplying you with the equivalent, or else desist.” Narveson does not go far enough, however. Diverting the water is a one-way exchange where many people give up something of benefit without making a free choice to do so. Addressing the injustice requires more than simply providing something of equal value. If I break into someone’s house and steal all his or her possessions, simply providing something of equal value does not provide redress for the injustice. 

At times, we may feel it is hopeless to try to promote education that engenders greater compassion or concern for justice in our society. We hear pernicious and destructive beliefs every day. But Nussbaum provides us with some hope:

Some pernicious sentiments have been undermined over time, by criticism and replacement of the conceptions and beliefs that inform them. Thus, racial hatred and disgust, and even misogynistic hatred and disgust, have certainly diminished in our public culture, through attention to the upbringing of children and their early education. The careful attention to language and imagery that some pejoratively call “political correctness” has an important public purpose, enabling children to see one another as individuals and not as members of stigmatized groups.

Society will never be free of injustice, but Nussbaum reminds us that our efforts are not in vain. Already, social attitudes toward the disabled have changed dramatically, and globalization and improved dissemination of information is forcing residents of affluent countries to consider how we impact people in remote parts of the world. Empirical data refute many of the claims of libertarians; disease and starvation exist in great numbers and are exacerbated by current policies and practices. Action to promote justice and liberty is both required and possible. 

Poem: Prelude to the Pogrom

In camouflage and unmarked minivans,
brutal anarchists are loose on the streets.
They perpetuate the casual cruelty
of anonymous cops on the beat.

The desperate disappearing of schismatics
realises nightmares of deadly disorientation.
Extraordinary renditions become ordinary
daily habits of these agents of provocation.

While the doves of justice sing of peace,
lawless mobs roam in the darkest hours.
Concealed and agitating the sleeping hive
while gassing the nectar of its flowers.

Many naively thought they were immune
from aggression and unprovoked attacks.
A veteran thought he’d just have a word
before finding himself beaten with bats.

The moms came out in force, surely
no one could mistake them for terrorists.
But gas canisters were lobbed at their feet
as the traitors were more than treacherous.

The dads stepped up with a leaf-blower defence
to give the treasonous well-deserved blowback.
And a nation finally started to see clearly
that democracy had taken another track.

Epiphanies sometimes come too late,
and eternal vigilance is hard to maintain,
But the sleepy multitude shakes to life
to scrub and erase this lawless stain. 

Take heart and raise your heads high.
You have history and justice on your side.
They are no more than a despotic few,
but you are the power of a rising tide. 

Cancelling Cancel Culture for Beginners

I’m not old enough to remember a time before cancel culture existed. In the 1950s in the US, anyone suspected of being a socialist was labeled a communist and blacklisted. Anyone who was gay or suspected of being gay (or otherwise queer) was forced to marry opposite sex partners for appearances in order to appear in any media. 

Atheists kept their religious beliefs secret if they wanted to hold any kind of community leadership position or even be accepted. Muslims were simply not seen or heard in the public arena. Many Jewish people in the public eye adopted names that would conceal their Jewishness. 

Non-white performers might try to “pass” as white in order to work, and those who could not were often prevented from even entering venues that would be appropriate. Many black performers watched in poverty as white performers gained wealth and fame off the art they stole. 

People were less offended? Lenny Bruce, who was taken off to jail for offending community standards, would have been surprised to hear it. People could criticise the government? The Smothers Brothers were fired and blacklisted from TV for daring political satire. 

Of course, cancel culture began long before the examples I gave, and it will continue long after. The difference at the moment is that people who are accustomed to censoring, and censuring, others are now finding that non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual, non-cis people have found their voices and have a thing or two to say. People aren’t now losing their voices. People are now finding their voices. 

Poem: You Tried to Keep Your Head Up (for James Byrd)

You lived a life that made your family proud,
But the weak-minded hated the colour of your skin.
You lived a life that made your family proud,
But fuelled master race fantasies for neighbour kids.

You trusted the boys who claimed supremacy.
To be generous and relieve your heavy burden.
You trusted the boys who claimed supremacy
as they brought your death and your ascent began.

You tried to keep your head up,
as those bastards laughed through your screams.
You tried to keep your head up,
with pain and blood in free flowing streams.

You were the only man there
as you were tortured by these boys.
You were the only man there,
Your body drug through gravel like a toy.

You lived gently and kept your head up,
And you died in excruciating pain.
You lived gently and kept your head up,
So we must ensure white supremacy never rises again.

Other works inspired by the murder of James Byrd, Jr.


Talking Points for One Particular Left-Leaning Liberal

First of all, I guess you could get kind of crazy debating terms like “leftist,” “socialist,” “liberal,” “classical liberal,” and so on. And because of the risk of getting kind of crazy, I have no inclination to debate these terms. Let’s just say I believe in trying to make the world better by supporting things like accessible healthcare, accessible education, public libraries, maintained infrastructure, a habitable planet, and things of that nature. I try not to get freaked out by all the names thrown at people like me, and I try not to waste too much time trying to find the label that best fits.

But anyone would agree that I am not right-wing, conservative, alt-right, or any of that. So I think you’d say I’m on “the left” or “left of center.” What’s more, there are a few things I don’t like about the way other people on the left frame their debates. I wouldn’t dream of telling other people how to describe their own ideas, but I do dream of telling people how I like to describe my ideas, so here you go.

Free stuff—I don’t like all the talk about free stuff, whether it is education, healthcare, fire services, police protection, freeways, libraries, or air. Nothing is free, and we should all be able to agree on that. What I want is an equitable form of cost sharing. We all share the cost so that no one is left out. Why do I want my neighbor’s kids to get a free education, even if I don’t think I benefit directly? Because I want to live in a society where people are educated and empowered to share in the promotion of a functioning society. And I want their education to be useful beyond making them good employees.

Wealth distribution—Let’s face it, wealth is distributed. If wealth is going to exist at all, it will be distributed in some sort of pattern. It is absolutely pointless to say you are opposed to a patterned distribution of wealth. So you’re saying you’re actually just opposed to wealth re-distribution, which you imagine is a very different animal. You just don’t want your hard-earned money taken away through taxes to make someone better off. You can’t imagine that anyone else has done anything to make you better off, because you do not want to imagine that. Unlike some people on the left, I’m not saying rich people shouldn’t exist. I’m only saying that if rich people exist, poor people should not.

Market solutions—Some people anthropomorphize capital markets and claim they can fix all our problems. Sometimes entrepreneurs come up with some pretty good ideas, and that’s fine and dandy, but the people had good ideas, not the markets. Also, no markets are free. All markets are the products of the specific agreements various humans have put in place. Those agreements are constantly in flux and are subject to negotiation. “Free” markets do not exist. You will never find a market running wild in nature. I guess this is as good a place as any to say that I see no reason to completely eliminate private health insurance companies. It is only necessary to ensure that no one needs private health insurance.

Rights—to say everyone has a right to free speech is only to say I think society functions better when the government does not restrict speech in most cases. While some people believe “rights” come from God or nature or someplace else, you don’t have to believe that to use the word. It may annoy philosophers and political scientists, but a right is something someone thinks people should have. A “legal right” or “guaranteed right” is just something that was popular enough with people to be written in to law. Of course, it’s your right to believe whatever you want.

You might be thinking I should have some sort of summary conclusion or something, but I can assure you that I do not, so that’s that.

Meandering Metaphors as Rivers (#poem)

brown boat
Photo by Jennifer Hubacher on

The Mississippi River is a metaphor for life,
Mostly because Samuel Clemens made it so.
At least that’s what you would’ve learned
In your literature class—that a huge, meandering
River held the secrets of innocence, knowledge,

Guilt, and wisdom. So much is hidden under
The surface, see, and so much changes as you
Drift along. You may start your journey with
A piece of property and end it with a human being.
Not everyone learns to feel. Not everyone feels shame.

Mark Twain sort of got that, but some people pretty
Much think he dropped the ball at the end there,
And it is hard to see why Huck couldn’t have
Ended up being a slightly better person than
He ended up being. Everyone is disappointed

The novel ended the way it did, instead
Of some other way, but it’s what Clemens wanted.
It may be that ol’ Mark Twain ended up no more
Developed than his young creation, or maybe he just
Wanted us to take the next step ourselves.


Democracy Died (#poem)

woman holding protest sign
Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on

Democracy died in the Senate chamber
When Supreme Court justice was never heard
Through a guileless force of legal obstruction.
Respect for law fell like old holiday garland.
A complacent nation did not demur,
Thinking true fascism could not recur,
Power transferred to a political poseur.
A complacent nation watched it’s legal destruction
And Democracy died.
They quickly forgot what they once were,
A nation of laws designed to deter
A tyrant seeking freedom’s complete destruction.
As the confident joked about his linguistic aberrations,
They let the unthinkable occur
And Democracy died.

Quaker Eugenics: Antinomies and Paradoxes

Some of history’s most famous and infamous hereditarians were Quakers: Samuel Morton, Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, Daniel Garrison Brinton, and Henry Herbert Goddard. In varying degrees, they exhibited a passion for knowledge and scientific research, concern for the improvement of society, and social action. How their association with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) influenced their scientific and social undertakings is a matter of some speculation, but an examination of Quaker values and historical trends may shed some light on their endeavours.

The history of the Quaker religions is relatively short, only appearing in England in the 1650s and in America shortly after that. Early Quakers in England, most notably George Fox, opposed the authority of the Church of England and embraced the idea of personal religious authority. In fact, the early Quakers challenged all authority, refusing to doff their hats for anyone and insisting on using the informal pronouns ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. Quakers asserted that God is within every person and that honesty and simplicity were required of a religious life. Quakers were seekers of knowledge and truth and were suspicious of wisdom received by others.

Whilst their views may not seem surprisingly radical in the twenty-first century, it caused a multitude of problems in the seventeenth century. Quakers frequently encountered conflict with authorities and endured lengthy confinement in prison and even executions. Partly as a result of this history, it would seem, Quakers often took up the cause of prison reform and were (and are) adamantly opposed to the death penalty. They opposed violent conflict of any kind. Their belief that God is within every person led them to accept women as spiritual and political leaders. For the same reason, Quakers opposed slavery early in their history. It is surprising, then, that so many famous hereditarians and even outright eugenicists were Quakers. A brief overview of some prominent individuals and institutions in Quaker history may help unravel the paradoxes of Quaker history.

One of the earliest Quakers, Mary Dyer, was herself accused of producing undesirable offspring. First an Antinomian and later a Quaker, she first appears in the public record in 1637 after becoming the mother to a ‘monstrous birth’. Antinomians preceded Quakers slightly in history, arising in the early seventeenth century. Antinomians were also slightly more radical, rejecting all authority to the point that by today’s standards they might be considered anarchists. Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop wrote tracts connecting Antinomian women and monstrous births, especially Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson. After attention came to the birth, the baby was exhumed and Anne Hutchinson was identified as one of the midwives. Winthrop wrote, ‘Then [Hutchinson] confessed all, yet for further assurance, the childe was taken up, and though it was much corrupted, yet the horns, and claws, and holes in the back, and some scales, &c. were found and seen of above a hundred persons’.[i] For Winthrop and others, ‘monstrous’ births were evidence of God’s intent to expose Antinomian heresy. Giving birth to a monster was equated with actually being a monster. Dyer would not become a Quaker until the 1650s, and the idea that sins are passed from parent to child is as old as Christian theology, of course, but Dyer’s experiences set an interesting precedent for the future of Quakers and inherited defects.

Dyer became a Quaker whilst in England. She had gone to England with her husband, who was on an embassy to Parliament. Quaker men and women often took a missionary role and endured long prison sentences as a result. Dyer returned to America in 1657 only to be arrested with two other Quaker missionaries, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson. She was released briefly to Rhode Island but was again arrested when she returned to visit Robinson and Stephenson. They were banished but chose to challenge the law and were eventually sentenced to death. Dyer was forced to witness the hanging of her friends and prepared for execution, but she was given a reprieve at the last moment. She refused to step down from the scaffold and was forcibly removed and banished once again. After being again sentenced to death, she wrote to the Massachusetts General Court, ‘In Love and Spirit of Meekness I again beseech you, for I have no Enmity to the Persons of any; but you shall know, That God shall not be mocked’.[ii] On June 1, 1660, Mary Dyer became the only woman ever executed as a Quaker.[iii] Mary Dyer is now being recognised in the history of feminism. Anne G. Myles says, ‘Mary Dyer and other early Quaker women are at once the great inheritors and progenitors of women’s resistance—resistance to unjust laws and the manifest institutions of power, to that power as it is mediated through the policing of gender norms, and to both of these factors’ capacity to silence women who step out of bounds’.[iv]

In England, both Quakers and Puritans opposed the authority of the Church of England, but in America they opposed each other. The Quaker belief that God was in everyone combined with extreme pacifism and righteous indignation with those who disagreed caused them many problems. Early Quakers opposed war and defended the rights of slaves, women, and the mentally ill. Partly as a consequence of their own oppression and imprisonment, Quakers resisted harsh, dehumanizing, and demeaning punishments.

The Religious Society of Friends arose in the years of 1652–1656 in England, but Quakers began meeting in America at about the same time. These new Friends would sometimes tremble with fervor and became known as Quakers. In early Quaker gatherings, men and women would sit in silence to wait upon the Lord for spiritual guidance and revelation from the light within. The light is sometimes referred to as the Light of Christ or the Light of God. Quakers rejected the idea that a religious authority was necessary to interpret the Bible or spiritual leadings of God. At these meetings, George Fox emerged as a leader of the Quaker movement. Becoming a Quaker required at first to become ‘convinced’ of the truth of Quaker beliefs followed by a slower conversion to a life of inward discipline. Quaker values included pacifism, simplicity, and integrity.[v]

Given the quality of the Quaker values, it is not surprising that the first opposition to slavery in America came from Quakers. In 1688, Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania spoke out against the evils of slavery.[vi] David Lovejoy notes that Quaker opposition to slavery increased during the eighteenth century based on Quaker values of equality. He says, ‘For each and every man, regardless of race, was capable of receiving the light if he would but give himself over to it. Religiously, then, Quakers had an inbred sense of equality which, by the middle of the eighteenth century, they brought to bear upon several social problems about them’.[vii] Given the egalitarian nature of Quaker values, the strong opposition to slavery seems unavoidable. The surprise is that later Quakers would become known as the first ‘racial’ scientists.

Among the most influential Quakers in America was William Penn, who had friendships with both George Fox and John Locke. Penn attempted a bold experiment and set out to create a society that embodied the Quaker values and followed the blueprint of a Lockean democracy. When Penn encountered Native Americans in Pennsylvania, he wrote, ‘The worst is that they are the worse for the Christians, who have propagated their vices and yielded them tradition for ill and not for good things’.[viii] Describing Penn’s field report on Native Americans, Frederick Tolles and Gordon Alderfer write:

What is impressive about Penn’s field report on American Indians is the same thing that was exceptional about his practical relations with them—his freedom from the prejudice against ‘savagism’ that colored most 17th century accounts of Native Americans. Because he took them for what they were—no less human, no less endowed with Inward Light than white men—he was able to appreciate and understand their culture in something of the spirit of the modern anthropologist.[ix]

Penn was aware of the negative effects Christian settlers had on natives of America. He attempted to establish a social system that would ameliorate these effects and establish an order of respect for the worth and necessary freedom of all. His Quaker ideals may not have been fully realised, and we will see that Quaker efforts often have unintended consequences and apparent contradictions.

John Howard, for example, was a Quaker prison reformer in England who died in 1790. He testified before the House of Commons in 1774, and many of his recommended reforms had been instituted in England’s jails. Howard was a supporter of providing separate cells for prisoners and providing them with ‘silence, solitude, and meditation’. In other words, he brought solitary confinement to England’s prisons.[x] On his use of solitary confinement, Janet Whitney says,

He practiced them with disastrous effects on his only son. He left them as a terrible legacy to the boys of Christ’s Hospital whose solitary punishment dungeons, instigated by him, were responsible for more than one case of hysteria and insanity. And we see Howard’s system of solitary confinement as one of the most dreaded and dehumanizing agencies in the run of British prisons today.[xi]

That Howard practiced such confinement on his only son indicates that it was not a lack of compassion that guided him, but a lack of foresight of the consequences of his theory. This phenomenon is not unique to Quakers, of course, but the history of Quakers and the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill shows many well intentioned errors of judgment.

In 1796, English Quakers began a more successful experiment in the treatment of mental illness that continues today. After visiting a Friend who was in the York Asylum, concerned Friends enlisted the help of William Tuke, a Quaker tea merchant, to raise funds for an alternative asylum. The result was The Retreat, a mental hospital that emphasised humane treatment of patients, providing useful occupation, resocialization, and a harmonious environment. The hospital remains a Quaker ministry and now has 160 beds.[xii]

In 1813, Quakers in the United States followed the lead of their English counterparts and opened the Friends Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason. Before Friends Hospital, as it is now called, opened, Philadelphians could pay a shilling to see men and women chained in the dank basement of Pennsylvania Hospital. The Quakers were outraged and wanted to provide ‘moral treatment’ for the mentally ill. The Quakers insisted that patients be given private rooms with windows, compassion, conversation, and the opportunity to walk about the grounds. The Quaker model was adopted by the State Lunatic Asylum at Harrisburg when it opened in 1851. The Friends hospital itself was based on The Retreat in England after Thomas Scattergood, a Philadelphia tanner, visited the hospital at York. The Friends hospital still operates on the model of ‘moral treatment’. Dr. James M. Delaplane, director of the hospital, said, ‘The Quakers did not believe that you should hurt people to make them behave in certain ways and neither do we today’.[xiii]

Although Quaker Elizabeth Fry does not appear to have known John Howard, she was his immediate successor in prison reform in England, though with less disastrous effects. One major difference between Fry and her predecessor is that she was concerned only with female prisoners. She felt female prisoners needed a separate prison staffed by female wards. She managed to gain approval for an experimental prison at Newgate. Of her success, she said:

Our rules have certainly been broken, but very seldom. . . . I think I may say we have full power amongst them [the women] for one of the said it was more terrible to be brought up before me than before the judge, though we use nothing but kindness. I have never punished a woman during the whole time, or even proposed a punishment to them; and yet I think it is impossible, in a well-regulated house, to have rules more strictly attended to.[xiv]

Fry’s success at Newgate expanded her views on the role of women both as prison reformers and as social activists. She encouraged better treatment in prisons, hospitals, lunatic asylums, and workhouses. She encouraged women to move beyond the domestic sphere to help bring about much needed reform. She also exhorted women to visit women incarcerated in all the above institutions, saying, ‘Were ladies to make a practice of regularly visiting them, a most important check would be obtained on a variety of abuses’.[xv] Elizabeth Fry is remembered for her strong advocacy for women and Quaker values. Concern for prisoners and the mentally ill is consistent in Quaker history, sometimes bringing improved conditions and sometimes having less desirable effects.

Abby Hopper Gibbons was an American prison reformer and social activist in the late nineteenth century. She worked with Josephine Shaw Lowell to improve condition of inmates at asylums and prison with particular attention to the women. One of Gibbons’ goals was to have women supervise female inmates.[xvi] In a letter to New York Governor Samuel Tildon in 1882, she appealed to her experience as a Quaker in confronting social problems, saying:

A Friend by birth and education, my path in life has been of a character so practical as to leave no doubt as to the feasibility of selecting women of known capacity and sound common sense. In the sect or out of it we claim no superiority on any ground nor do we confine our experience to a limited class. Largely associated with both men and women in charitable work, I have seen the advantage of cooperation and have noted progress in the internal management of the affairs and institutions. This is conceded by our best men who are glad to have women share the responsibilities and active service for which they are especially fitted. And after all, why should it be more difficult to find women than men?[xvii]

In addition to her work in the prisons and mental institutions, she was also concerned with other women’s issues, including prostitution. She was appalled by the moral double standard imposed on women when it came to vice. As a leader of the moral purity movement, she opposed legislation intended to regulate prostitution and reduce disease. Abby Gibbons argued forcefully for the protection of prostitutes, but her solution may have been to provide more harsh punishment than what already existed. She advocated reformatories to help educate prostitutes in better means of employment (better as defined by the moral purity movement leaders). Margaret Hope Bacon makes this comment on Gibbons’ plan:

These reformatories had been advances over the jails of the period, but the staff treated the inmates as tractable children to be trained and urged indefinite sentences in which this training could take place. Thus, prostitutes arrested and sent to reformatories would actually be deprived of their liberty more harshly than men picked up on any comparable charge.[xviii]

Once again, the effort to care for others and give solutions to their problems can easily become an effort to control others. The liberator sometimes becomes an oppressor. The belief that God is in every woman might mean that every woman’s life must be respected, but Quakers often believe the light of God must be nurtured even when such nurturance takes some amount of involuntary loss of liberty.

Josephine Shaw Lowell worked with many Quakers and was a philanthropist and reformer as well. According to Nicole Hahn Rafter, Lowell is not referred to as a eugenicist in most biographies. Rafter suggests this may be because Lowell died in 1905 before the term ‘eugenics’ became popular. Nonetheless, Rafter credits Lowell and her collaborators with starting eugenic criminology at the Newark Custodial Asylum for Feeble-minded Women. Lowell wanted both to improve conditions for those in asylums and to prevent the need for asylums in the future. She advocated a strong program of eugenics to prevent degeneracy.[xix]

Samuel Morton spent a good deal of time in the nineteenth century measuring skulls for cranial capacity. He believed that brain size was a good predictor of intelligence. He did not appear, however, to have an active political agenda. As a Quaker, he was opposed to slavery, but he did not believe all humans to be of equal intelligence. Despite his apolitical approach, his contemporaries used his research to political ends. One such contemporary was the openly racist phrenologist Charles Cauldwell, and another was Morton’s colleague Josiah Nott, a physician in the state of Alabama.[xx]

Francis Galton is often considered to be the father of British eugenics. Galton was born in a Quaker family, though this fact is often obscured in descriptions of his life. One might think his Quaker heritage was not important to either Galton or his collaborators, but Karl Pearson, another British hereditarian following in Galton’s footsteps, placed much importance on Galton’s heritage. Pearson, also a Quaker, credited Galton’s Quaker heritage for his brilliance. He said, ‘Not only did the Society of Friends unite men religiously but it produced special temperaments genetically . . . Almost a biological type’.[xxi] One must wonder whether Pearson was being intentionally ironic by labelling members of a particular religion as a biological type. Although Galton is considered the father of eugenics and given some measure of blame for the eventual racist and fascist aims of many eugenicists by many, Daniel Kevles claims that Galton was no more racist than most Victorians in England. Kevles claims that British eugenics had more to do with class than race.[xxii]

Galton sought to regulate marriage according to the quality of potential parents. Galton, like Morton, felt that intelligence could be measured by measuring the size of one’s head. He also felt that other traits, such as a strong work ethic, were heritable. When his cousin, Charles Darwin, told him that he had previously thought that men were roughly equal in intellect but differed only in ‘zeal and hard work,’ Galton replied that ‘character, including the aptitude for hard work, is heritable like every other faculty’.[xxiii]       One might think that Galton’s work has now been relegated to the historical record, but he is still seen as a creditable scientist by many, just as he was in his own time. The August/September 2008 issue of Scientific American Minds says of Galton,

In 1883 English anthropologist and polymath Sir Francis Galton dubbed intelligence an inherited feature of an efficiently functioning central nervous system. Since then, neuroscientists have garnered support for this hypothesis using modern neuroimaging techniques.[xxiv]

It is hard to see how neuroimaging could verify the results Galton discovered by measuring the circumference of skulls, but this passage serves to highlight the place of distinction Galton held and still holds. Galton’s advocacy for restricting marriage and family size again seems to be counter to his Quaker heritage. Contrary to Pearson’s comments on Galton’s Quaker heritage, it does not appear that his theories or the practices he advocated were based on Quaker teachings. Pearson’s comments seem to claim that Quaker families are ‘good’ in the sense of being respectable rather than of being moral. By the nineteenth century Quakers had gone from being outsiders always in conflict with the law to being respectable and affluent members of society. It was Galton’s affluence that enabled him to pursue his research, after all, more than his dedication.[xxv]

Galton’s immediate successor was Karl Pearson, a British socialist and Quaker. Pearson, though, had doubts whilst still at King’s College and later whilst studying in Germany. By the time he returned to England, he had become more of an agnostic and an adherent of Spinoza’s philosophy, which proved the existence of God but equated God more with the universe than the spiritual power most Christians worship. Whilst in Germany, Pearson was contemptuous of students studying Darwin’s evolution looking for solutions to social ills. He was instead attracted to German idealism and historicism. Following the ideas of Hegel and Fichte, he believed that moral and social progress was best expressed through the state. In the late 1880s, Pearson changed his mind on Darwin when he came in to contact with social Darwinism that replaced competition among individuals with competition among groups.[xxvi] Pearson did not advocate radical direct action to bring about a socialist state. Rather, he felt a socialist state should emerge slowly following the work of intellectuals. He felt it was up to the ‘power intellectual’ to guide society.[xxvii]

Pearson headed the Galton Eugenics Laboratory in Britain, but he ‘refused to join the Eugenics Education Society, to participate in political activity, or to make available his institutional resources and expertise for the support of legislative measures’.[xxviii] Pearson was intent on establishing eugenics as an academic discipline, and he felt that the social activists associated with the eugenics movement were doing it harm in that area. Pearson did not like to be involved in political activity and preferred to promulgate his research through academic journals and learned talks and activities. He was a racist who disparaged both Jews and Blacks, but he took pleasure in shocking a Newcastle cleric by saying that Adam, the source of all humans, must certainly have been ‘Negroid’.[xxix] It is tempting to say that Pearson’s temperament may have resulted from his Quaker upbringing, which was stern, especially from his father, but that his theories had little to do with Quakerism. His comments on Galton’s Quakerism show that he admired Quakers generally, though, so he was not completely divorced from its ideas. Many Quakers of his time had moved toward socialism of varying sorts. Nonetheless, Pearson did not seem to be following Quaker faith. Instead, he appeared to be following intellectual trends of his time rather than the much older teachings of his religion.

Born of Quaker descent, Daniel Garrison Brinton was a leading American ethnologist who produced prolific publications on race and, more specifically, race inferiority. He divided races into categories ranging from savage to half-cultured to enlightened. He argued that Africans, Native Americans, and Chinese had failed to produce ‘empires’ for want of developed minds. Brinton was adamant that there must be no mixing of the Caucasian race with other races. He said that miscegenation would bring ‘indelible degradation’ to the descendents of the white partner. He put the burden of keeping society stable on the shoulders of white women. He said that only the woman could preserve the ‘purity of the type’. His pronouncement simultaneously established the superiority of the white man whilst relieving him of any responsibility for preserving social order.[xxx] The original tenets of the Quaker heritage appear to have been lost in the mind of Brinton. Lee Baker says of him:

Although his Quaker background and these obituaries raise some intriguing questions, they demonstrate how deeply ingrained notions of white supremacy were even among putative radical scholars and activists, how accepted notions of racial evolutionism were among the intelligentsia regardless of political orientation, and how integral notions of racial hierarchies were to anarchist ideology during the last decade of the nineteenth century.[xxxi]

In short, views on racial inferiority seemed to override egalitarian concerns that are a part of Quaker faith.

Henry Herbert Goddard was reared as a Quaker, and he never abandoned his faith, even if he seemed to have gone far afield of the idea of equal human worth. He was taught Darwinian evolution in school at Providence as a matter of fact. A classmate of Goddard’s said that the instruction enabled Quakers to follow scientific debate without any ‘wreckage of faith’.[xxxii] Though they seem contradictory, Goddard never lost his faith as Pearson had done. Indeed, Goddard seemed to feel his efforts in eugenics would help society by creating more individuals of moral worth such as Quakers. In his study of the ‘Kallikak’ family, he overtly equates ‘Quaker family’ with ‘good family’. Goddard’s steadfast faith, indeed, may have helped him be less steadfast with his intellectual theories.

Goddard conducted a study of the ‘Kallikak’ family in a classic study of hereditary feeble-mindedness. In his study, he asserted that Martin Sr. had two lines of descendents, one beginning with a feeble-minded woman named Deborah and another with a good Quaker woman. He describes the two lines of descent from Martin as follows:

The Kallikak family presents a natural experiment in heredity. A young man of good [Quaker] family becomes through two different women the ancestor of two lines of descendents: the one characterised by thoroughly good, respectable, normal citizenship, with almost no exceptions; the other being equally characterised by mental defect in every generation.[xxxiii]

To solve the problem of inherited degeneracy, Goddard proposes a system of segregation and colonization for the feeble-minded. He sees this as the best way to improve conditions for society. His plan of action is bold, direct, and full of latent prejudice. Goddard’s conclusions would seem to go against the belief that all have God within them, but Goddard’s continued faith in Quakerism, at least nominally, is reflected in how he describes Martin’s courtship of his wife. He says:

During the summer of enforced idleness he wooed and won the heart of a young woman of good Quaker family. Her shrewd old father, however, refused to give his consent. To his objections, based on the ground that Martin did not own enough of the world’s goods, the young man is recorded as saying, “Never mind, I will own more land than ever thou did, before I die,” which promise he made true.[xxxiv]

Goddard seems to view Quakerism as a sign of moral goodness, but he does not, at this time of his life, seem to equate Quakerism with any particular social obligation. He was perhaps too caught up with his research or too impressed by the exciting developments in science to recognise his own prejudice and the negative consequences of prevailing attitudes and practices.

In later life, Henry Herbert Goddard, who had advocated strict eugenic laws, always felt obligated to social commitment. He attempted to follow Quaker values throughout his life, but his later life seems to have had greater humility and sincere devotion. Of his later life, Leila Zenderland says, ‘He committed himself to various causes, sending not only money but also letters containing advice or expressing ‘a concern’ – as we Quakers say’.[xxxv] He supported Einstein’s Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, which opposed the use of nuclear weapons. He would not support the Committee on United Europe because it took a hard line with Stalin, and he said, ‘A soft answer turneth away wrath’.[xxxvi] In these later years, Goddard championed gentle parenting and a peaceful demeanor. On intelligence, he decided that there was not enough information about genes to say that intelligence was inherited. He said only that ‘we know enough to safely conclude that the possibilities of variation are great’.[xxxvii] When he was nearly eighty, he sent a Christmas letter, and Deborah Kallikak was among the recipients. Helen Reeves, one of Deborah’s teachers, said that Deborah’s reaction was to say, ‘The nicest thing about it . . . is that he thought I had the brains to understand it which of course I do’.[xxxviii]

Another prominent Quaker of the twentieth century, Jean Toomer, stands in contrast to judgmental theorist such as Goddard. Toomer was a prominent author during the Harlem Renaissance. He was born in 1894 and did not become a Quaker until 1940 after attending meetings for about five years. During his years as a Quaker, he became a sought after speaker and leader with special interest in teaching young people. Rather than social activism, he advocated inward change. He wrote, ‘If we are to consider politics, then surely it should be our aim to come nearer to the Politics of Eternity rather than express views about the politics of our time’.[xxxix] But in 1947 he expressed himself a little differently on the need for inward development and social change: ‘The truth is that both approaches are needed. I have stressed the necessity of inward change because it is relatively neglected in our day’.[xl] Toomer judged himself to be somewhere between one-eighth and one-sixteenth black. He lived among Blacks, whites, and Jews. Perhaps as a result of his own mixed heritage, he opposed attempts at racial categorization. He saw racial purity as a myth and felt that rejection of the idea of race could help to unite individuals as part of the human race.[xli] He said, ‘Human blood is human blood. Human beings are human beings. . . . No racial or social factors can adequately account for the uniqueness of each—or for the individual differences which people display concurrently with basic commonality’.[xlii] Toomer returned to the original Quaker ideal that God is within each person.

Lancelot Hogben lived from 1895–1975 and was a biologist who held, among other positions, a chair in social biology at the London School of Economics. He was a humanist and social radical. He sought the development of a rationally ordered society but opposed the efforts of eugenicists. Although he later described himself as an atheist, he practiced Quaker ethics for his entire life.[xliii] This is not inconsistent with Quaker practice. Many Quakers, especially liberal Quakers of the twentieth century and later, define God in abstract terms, even embracing atheism and defining God as the universe. But even in 1648, Quaker Gerrard Winstanley declared that Christ ‘is not a single man at a distance from you but the indwelling power of reason’.[xliv] This may help to reconcile Hogben’s Quakerism with his exclamation, quoted by Daniel Kevles, ‘I’m an atheist, thank God’.[xlv] Kevles also credits Hogben with convincing Julian Huxley that his views on the unemployed would only help foster Nazism.[xlvi] Hobgen rejected eugenics and favored instead humanistic socialism, hoping always to help bring about an ordered world free from war and poverty.

Whilst Quaker history is filled with people in all periods who resolutely defended the worth of each individual with an egalitarian zeal, a number of changes took place in the nineteenth century. Between 1860 and 1880, the Society of Friends in the United States experienced a revival. After a decline in the numbers of Quakers in the United States in the early part of the nineteenth century, large tent meetings spread to both coasts in the latter part.[xlvii] This is somewhat misleading, however, as it obscures the growing schisms within the Quaker community, which was no longer a single community. Indeed, Quakers in the later nineteenth century divided into factions so different that an outsider would probably not recognise that they were of the same faith tradition. Quaker historian Howard Brinton says,

There were then in the second half of the nineteenth century in America three kinds of Quakers designated by the names of three persons. The Hicksites represented the more mystical, liberal, noncreedal branch; the Gurneyites, the more evangelical, authoritarian and theologically conservative branch; and the Wilburites, a branch whose position was between the other two.[xlviii]

The Hicksites were the most liberal of the three groups both socially and politically. The Hicksites would continue to fight racism, oppose war, and insist on each individuals right and responsibility to seek meaning and follow his or her conscience. The other branches were more conservative socially and maintained the severity of their Quaker forbears, continuing to stress a devotion to religious life and Christ. The conservative branches also established creeds, whilst the liberal branch remained without creed or doctrine. The creeds stressed justification and sanctification and resembled mainline protestant religions more than early Quaker religions. Both Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were Quakers, and it seems impossible they could be of the same faith as Jean Toomer and Lancelot Hogben, but the branches are so different that it is consistent with modern Quakerism to produce such diverse individuals.

The apparent paradoxes in the actions of Quakers stemmed partly from changes in the religion, partly in changes in society, and, occasionally, simply from changes in individuals. The early Quaker religion was a religion of radical outsiders who were treated as an underclass both in England and America. These radicals had to fight for the right to even exist, and they were forced at every turn to demand humane treatment. For these Quakers, it was impossible to imagine a loving God that would tolerate inhumane treatment of anyone. They recognised God in every individual and felt that the abuse of anyone was an abuse of God. For this reason, they opposed harsh treatment of criminals, especially the death penalty, and fiercely resisted war in all its forms. These Quakers recognised the equality of races and the rights of women and children. It is no surprise, then, that early Quakers would oppose slavery and the harsh treatment of the mentally ill and prisoners.

By the later nineteenth century, though, Quakers had become more established. Many were now affluent, and Quakers such as William Tuke and Johns Hopkins could afford to donate large sums of moneys to fund institutions. Other Quakers, such as Francis Galton and Karl Pearson could afford to travel the world and attend the best schools. Rather than being outsiders, Quakers could now affect social policy and legislation. Of course, some Quakers would want to enforce their religious severity on others. For many, what might now be called ‘clean living’ was an obvious solution to social problems. Abby Hopper Gibbons would support the moral purity movements. Quakers of this period were likely to believe they had achieved their status in society through purity and religious rigor. The compassion that drove early Quakers to seek freedom for slaves and prisoners now translated into a desire to care for others by exerting some control over their choices.

The nineteenth century also showed shifts in scientific thinking, especially after Darwin’s work became widely known. As mentioned above, many Quakers of this period could afford to attend leading universities in the United States and Europe. The basic tenets of genetic determinism and social Darwinism were presented to many students as facts just as they are today. Quakers concerned with improving society would of course turn to the latest theories from leading scientist of the time. Indeed, it is not surprising that Quakers joined progressive movements and sometimes embraced socialism of varying sorts. The later nineteenth century was a turning point for Quakers as it was for society writ large. Quakers divided into many factions depending on which Quaker values seemed of greatest importance to them. In the ensuing decades, the liberal branch of Quakerism is the only one to remain without a creed in the United States. Hicksites are now members of the Friends General Conference (FGC), which still opposes discrimination, harsh punishments, and war. The modern FGC is also tolerant of universalism (the belief in universal salvation or universal worth) and even atheism or agnosticism. The past involvement of Quakers in eugenics and racial purity movements should serve as a reminder to contemporary Quakers that moral hazards are always present.


            [i] Anne G. Myles. ‘From Monster to Martyr: Re-Presenting Mary Dyer’. Early American Literature. 36:1, 2001, 3.

            [ii] Myles, 3-7.

            [iii] Myles, 3-7.

            [iv] Myles, 18.

            [v] Brinton, 1-15.

            [vi] David S. Lovejoy, ‘Samuel Hopkins: Religion Slavery, and the Revolution,’ The New England Quarterly, 40:2, 1967, 228.

            [vii] Lovejoy, 229.

            [viii] Frederick B. Tolles and E. Gordon Alderfer, The Witness of William Penn (New York: Octagon Books, 1980), 125.

            [ix] Tolles and Alderfer, 124.

            [x] Janet Whitney, Elizabeth Fry: Quaker Heroine (Boston, Little Brown, 1940), 227-228.

            [xi] Whitney, 228.

            [xii] Quaker Tour of England, The Retreat Mental Hospital., accessed July 31, 2008.

            [xiii] Debbie M. Price, ‘For 175 Years: Treating Mentally Ill With Dignity,’ The New York Times. April 7, 1988.

            [xiv] Price, 229.

            [xv] Price, 255.

            [xvi] Margaret Hope Bacon, Abby Hopper Gibbons: Prison Reformer and Social Activist (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000), 145 – 160.

            [xvii] Bacon, 156.

            [xviii] Bacon, 155.

            [xix] Nicole Hahn Rafter, Creating Born Criminals, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 35-50.

            [xx] Milford Wolpoff and Rachel Caspari, Race and Human Evolution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 89.

            [xxi] Gerald Sweeny, ‘Fighting for the Good Cause: Reflections on Francis Galton’s Legacy to American Heriditarian Psychology,’ Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 91:2, 2001, 29.

            [xxii] Kevles, 76.

            [xxiii] Stephen J. Gould, Mismeasure of Man, (New York: W. Norton & Co., 1996), 108-109.

            [xxiv] Christian Hoppe and Jelena Stojanovic, ‘High-Aptitude Minds,’ Scientific American Minds, August/September 2008, 61.

            [xxv] Gould, 107.

            [xxvi] Kevles, 23.

            [xxvii] Kevles, 24.

            [xxviii] Kevles, 104.

            [xxix] Kevles, 76.

            [xxx] John S. Haller, ‘Race and the Concept of Progress in Nineteenth Century American Ethnology,’ American Anthropolgist, New Series, 73:3, 719 – 721.

            [xxxi] Lee D. Baker, ‘Daniel G. Brinton’s Success on the Road to Obscurity, 1890 – 99,’ Cultural Anthropology, 15:3, 412.

            [xxxii] Zenderland, 31.

            [xxxiii] Henry Herbert Goddard, The Kallikak Family (New York: Arno Press, 1973), 116.

            [xxxiv] Goddard, 99-100.

            [xxxv] Zenderland, 337.

            [xxxvi] Zenderland, 337-338.

            [xxxvii] Zenderland, 338.

            [xxxviii] Zenderland, 338-339.

            [xxxix] Kerman and Eldridge, 267.

            [xl] Kerman and Eldridge, 267.

            [xli] Kerman and Eldridge, 341-342.

            [xlii] Kerman and Eldridge, 342.

            [xliii] Max Perutz, ‘Friendly Way to Science,’ Times Higher Education., accessed August 4, 2008.

            [xliv] Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism, ed. David Boulton (Dent, Cumbria: Dales Historical Monographs, n.d.), 88.

            [xlv] Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 124.

            [xlvi] Kevles, 127.

            [xlvii] Zenderland, 18.

            [xlviii] Brinton, 234.

Support the Troops (Remembrance Day Poem)

A farmer working in a field with his children formed

A bucolic scene in the countryside, maybe.Screenshot 2018-11-10 at 06.23.15

An older man crashed his bicycle and

Injured his leg, or so it would seem.


On the first tour, these scenes did not

Seem so ambiguous. The world

Had not given over to chaos then.

A soldier might still pass with a sense of purpose.


On the second tour, doubt set in,

And the soldiers sometimes faltered

In indecision–perhaps the wedding

Party was filled with combatants.


On the third tour, everyone is

A combatant. Everyone must die.

The universe is infinite and absolute

Hostility, death the only possible escape.


He asked whether I thought US soldiers

May have committed atrocities.

I asked whether he had support

For his mental health needs.


He answered only with

A desperate, pleading smile.


Illness as Financial Ruin (US only)

Every human who has drawn a breath has faced illness, injury, and death. The universal experience of illness creates vulnerability, loss of identity, anxiety, diminished autonomy, and fear. The inescapable battle between health and illness defines human experience and shapes our personalities, our worldviews, and spiritual depth.

For most of the developed world, though, it does not mean financial ruin. In the United States, alone among developed nations, even a relatively minor injury such as broken bones or illness requiring a brief hospital stay can lead to economic disaster. As a result, when we in the US get sick, we don’t think about how we can recover, how we can endure the pain, or the spiritual significance of our pain; rather, we think of how we will pay for our bills.

poorunclesam-800pxAs we face our anxiety over possible diagnoses, we must constantly be prepared to battle with insurance companies, aggressive hospital billing agents, and doctors exhausted from dealing with insurance paperwork. Few things in life create as much anxiety as financial insecurity, and illness always brings the threat of insecurity to US residents. When people have serious accidents, they balk at calling an ambulance because they fear the bills—they worry over whether the ride will be covered and whether the ambulance will take them to a hospital that is in-network. As a result, many people suffering medical emergencies drive themselves to the hospital.

When it isn’t an emergency, Americans often forgo treatment altogether. A Gallup poll in 2014 found that one-third of Americans skip needed medical treatment because of cost concerns, even when they have insurance.  According to the report, “Some 34% of Americans with private health insurance say they’ve skipped out on care because it was too expensive, up from 25% last year. Additionally, 28% of households that earn $75,000 or more report that family members have delayed care, up from just 17% last year.” The Affordable Care Act succeeded in insuring more people, but it also created greater financial burdens for middle-income families through higher deductibles and co-pays. Many people who have been accustomed to being able to afford healthcare now find that it is out of reach.

While healthcare inflation has slowed a bit in recent years,  catastrophic medical events put the costs incurred out of the reach of most of us. The United States alone finds medical fundraisers to be normal and routine. According to an article in Journal News, the number of GoFundMe contributions for medical expenses “was up more than 293 percent in 2014, when more than 600,000 medical campaigns were launched, compared to just over 158,000 in 2013.”  Families with or without insurance cannot afford their medical bills. A serious accident or illness such as cancer creates an existential crisis while forcing people suffering from illness and their families to scramble to avoid destitution.

I don’t write this impersonally, my wife and I buy our insurance through the healthcare exchanges. We pay $682 per month ($8,184 per year) with a $4,000 deductible per person. The out-of-pocket limit on expenses is $13,700 per year. Balance-billed charges do not apply to the out-of-pocket limits, so there really is no upper limit to possible charges. Ignoring balance billing, my costs could easily exceed $20,000 per year.

I often hear the argument that universal healthcare coverage is too expensive and will require raising taxes on the middle class. As I see it, I would still benefit from a tax rise of $15,000 or even $20,000 each year. It is true that others are not in my position, but all Americans should realize they are at risk. No one stays young and healthy. Eventually, everyone will be at greater risk for catastrophic illness, but even those who are currently young and healthy can face illness and injury, though we may not like to think about it. Further, everyone’s income is subject to great variability. Those who have employer-provided health insurance may not want to pay in to a national system, but employer-provided insurance is never guaranteed. Employers may cut benefits, employees lose jobs through layoffs and termination, or illness can end employees’ ability to work.

The same is true for business owners. The tides of fortune shift. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, Mary Brown brought a lawsuit against it, saying she did not want to be compelled to purchase health insurance. Mary Brown owned an auto repair shop that went under due to the pressure of economic recession and the Gulf oil spill in 2010. Of note, her bankruptcy filing listed “among the couple’s unsecured creditors several providers of medical care – a hospital and a physician group in Florida; an anesthesiology group based in Mississippi; and an eye care center in Alabama.”

Like many people, when she was doing well, Mary Brown thought that guaranteed universal access to healthcare was something the government was providing to other people. It didn’t occur to her that she might ever be in a position where she could not pay for her own medical care, but that is exactly what happened. I recently had the opportunity to speak to a Swedish citizen about Sweden’s healthcare system. He was a middle-aged man who explained that healthcare was paid through higher taxes. He said he didn’t mind the taxes, though, because you never know when you will be the one needing care.

It seems many Americans are not able to make this basic calculation of risk. Most people, even those who consider themselves well off, are not immune from the financial ruin that illness and injury can bring. Once people realize their own vulnerability, they support universal coverage for healthcare. The time for a more sober and accurate assessment of risk is well past due. We must wake up to the fact that the US healthcare system is not sustainable, that it leaves us at risk of financial failure, that it makes the experience of illness exponentially more stressful, and that we can do better.

It will not be easy. The US spends far more than other developed nations on healthcare. Each excess dollar we spend is profit for an insurance company, hospital, testing facility, pharmaceutical company, biotechnology company, or other player in the healthcare industry. Many people profit from the dangerous, expensive, and inefficient system we have in the United States. Every reduction in healthcare spending will be a reduction in profit for someone, and each person (or business) facing a loss of income will argue vehemently and vociferously that such a loss of income is a horrible tragedy and an impossible feat.

We will be told that reducing healthcare spending will reduce the quality of care. We will be told it will reduce our choices and control. We will be told it is impossible. We already have little choice or control, and we already have higher mortality rates than the rest of the industrialized world, so we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We have plenty of ideas on how to improve the system. What we lack is political will, but I think the will is growing. If we want universal coverage, we must demand it, and the time to demand it is now.