It is all well and good for citizens to engage in lofty abstractions as they discuss moral principles and political rights. As a practicing philosopher, I would be the last to decry such an activity.
But, as Aristotle taught us, morality and politics are, in the final analysis, practical. They are about the conduct of our lives and the ordering of society in specific, particular, day-by-day circumstances. Thus moral principles and political rights must have application to ordinary particular life experiences. Otherwise, they are of no use to us, merely "sounding brass and tinkling cymbal." Accordingly in the arena of ordinary day-by-day life, moral dogmatism and absolutism have no place.
Thus it was that Martin Luther King, when confronted with the charge that "the law" must be upheld without exception, answered not with competing abstractions but with a bill of particulars with a list of specific indignities and insults that the afro-American must face every day.
Put simply, it is not enough to have the will to do what is right. One must also have the practical intelligence to know what is right. And, in ordinary life, the application of abstract moral rules has consequences that often impact competing rules. Just as the ecologists have taught us that due to the complex interrelationships among organism, "you can't do just one thing," the morally sophisticated citizen must constantly ask the ecologist's question: "and then what?" (Hardin) Like
Lester Maddox in 1964, Rand Paul today has failed to acknowledge the complex ecology of morality, as he insists that absolute property rights must allow the owner and proprietor of a public facility to discriminate if he so chooses. And also, typical of the dogmatic libertarian, David Boaz fails to acknowledge the ecology of morality when he proclaims, without a shred of supporting argument, that "fundamental rights cannot conflict."
Yet it is just this kind of unyielding fanaticism that is polluting our civic and political discourse today. If the American republic is to survive the polarization of today's politics, we must, on both sides of the political divide, learn to pause and think through the implications of our moral precepts and our rhetoric. And the ultimate test of those precepts and that rhetoric must be in the laboratory of our practical everyday experience.
Libertarians and other dogmatists to the contrary notwithstanding, fundamental rights and abstract moral precepts can and do conflict. Accordingly, if one affirms, as both the liberals and the libertarians affirm, that we must respect the dignity of each individual and that each person's rights must be consistent with the equal rights of others, then it clearly follows that property rights are not absolute and that the public accommodation law of 1964 is correct:
All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, ... without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.
Copyright 2010 by Ernest Partridge