A Handy Guide for Checking Your Own Version of Liberalism

September 2, 2010

Inspired partly by Jack of Kent’s effort to define what he means by liberalism, I thought I’d share with the world a handy philosophical device for checking whether the principles you ostensibly hold are the ones you actually hold.

It relies upon the insight, derived from various philosophers of language, that the meaning attached to a word or phrase has two components – the intension and the extension. The extension of a word is the objects that word picks out, while the intension of a word is the function that picks out those objects. This is analogous to a mathematical function; for example the intension “X is a real number” refers to the extension “1,2,3,4…”. If one could come up with the intension for, say, a turtle, it would pick out all the turtles in the world.

When applied to principles, this has some interesting consequences. For example, if we were to take the libertarian principle that property rights are equivalent to freedom, we would have the intension “X is free if and only if his property rights are protected”. When applied to the world, this should pick out all the free people in the world as the principle’s extension. If you can identify someone in the world whom this principle picks out but who you do not consider to be free, it demonstrates that your ostensible intension of liberalism does not match your intuitive sense of what you mean by your politics.

In the case of the libertarian principle, one could perhaps make reference to the debt slaves of Dubai; those who took out loans from gangmasters for travel to Dubai for construction work, but upon arrival discovered that the level of payment they received was insufficient to ever pay off the loan, effectively indenturing them to gangmasters. Insufficient knowledge of maths has trapped them into a form of slavery, while the gangmasters have not used force or fraud against them. This does not correspond to my intuitive notion of freedom, and so I must reject the libertarian intension thereof.

Different ways of phrasing a principle have different types of extension. For example, the harm principle – that one is free to do as one wishes as long as one does not harm others – gives the intension “I am free to do X as long as I harm no-one else”, of which the extension is the set of actions, rather than the set of people. One could of course reverse this to produce another intension which refers to people – i.e. “X is free as long as he is not being harmed against his will”. You’d then need to check the various types of extension of your principle to ensure it didn’t contravene your intuitive sense of freedom – for example, the lack of clarity of the first intension of the harm principle implies that one could torture one’s own animals without impacting on anyone else’s freedom. Again, that may not be in line with your intuitive understanding of liberalism.

Much of this is, of course, common sense – but formalising common sense can be very useful – and very powerful – indeed.


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