The emerging leftist ideology of “end-libertarianism” takes individual autonomy as its end and constructs all policy around this purpose. The ideology is gaining converts because it unifies the previously dissonant strands of political advocacy on the American left. Indeed, taking greater individual autonomy as a goal furnishes a principled critique of war; requires the elimination of any threat to tolerance, diversity or pluralism; clears out any vestige of traditional morality; and excuses abortion. However, a few strands of political advocacy on the American left are left behind by “end-libertarianism.” Foremost among them is concern for the natural environment.
Consider the Boy Scouts of America, an organization of almost one million youths and half that many adult volunteers. It is dedicated to developing in scouts the potential for leadership and an appreciation of the natural environment. The ideal scout, then, will become a leader in the area of conservation and sustainable use of America’s natural environment. Yet the American left has developed a scorn for the BSA. The following reasons are those usually enumerated: The organization prohibits openly gay adult leaders, requires that scouts be obedient to their superiors and prescribes in the Scout Law reverence to God. The continued critique of the BSA from the left is evidence that when individual autonomy and concern for the environment come into conflict, end-libertarianism wins out.
To abstract from this example: End-libertarianism requires that traditional values be consigned to the private sphere of home, family and church. The problem is that concern for the environment is a traditional value that can only work effectively in the public sphere of communities, governments and national institutions, such as the media and education. Other traditional values work the same way. One such value is the respect for the natural development and intrinsic value of human life.
This value has important ramifications everywhere in bioethics, yet end-libertarianism relegates the value to the private sphere — far removed from research laboratories. The limitation of the value to the private sphere renders it effectively useless, thereby yielding the desired outcome of the end-libertarian; the traditional value would serve only to restrict the autonomy of medical researchers and practitioners.
End-libertarianism has already corrupted the dignity and honor of the historic medical profession. Such corruption is easy to observe in the transformation of the Hippocratic Oath, that code of honor to which doctors since time immemorial held themselves duty-bound. The original oath held to the value of human life irrespective of individual desire or belief: “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.”
But the modern oaths almost universally adopt the commitments of the end-libertarian, respecting individual autonomy above anything else. One modern oath is chilling in its cold willingness to kill: “If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my frailty.” The oath used at Yale is more euphemistic but makes clearer the infiltration of end-libertarianism: “I will assist my patients to make choices that coincide with their own values and beliefs.”
As it has corrupted the historic commitments of the medical profession, so will end-libertarianism corrupt the long-held commitments of dedicated conservationists. The next move of the end-libertarians will be the support of transhumanism, a philosophy that aims to modify human beings with technology in an attempt to overcome human nature. If people are no longer interested in preserving their own flesh and blood, they won’t care a bit about preserving America’s natural environment.
If it maintains its philosophical course, the American left will not for long remain friendly to a concern for the environment. Rather, conservationists ought to join the bioconservatives who reject transhumanism, adopt a consistent philosophy that respects both the natural environment and natural human development, and work to educate the American right of the ecological benefits and social enrichment effected by their preservation. The ideology of end-libertarianism is non-negotiable. The American right, on the other hand, values a variety of goods; it can make room for nature.
Peter Johnston is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.