Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl have been working and writing together for nearly four decades and have produced some of the most important recent works on liberty. In addition to their many articles, essays, and books on the subject, they have also shared their ideas in university classrooms and in numerous conferences and seminars around the world and online. Both separately and together, they have worked to advance their neo-Aristotelian defense of classical liberalism and to support the compatibility of the normative principles of a perfectionist ethics with the metanormative principles of a non-perfectionist politics.
The purpose of this career review is to introduce the essential ideas that appear in Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s major books. The first two sections recapitulate their philosophical contributions in Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (2005) and The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics (2016). The last section takes a brief look at their just released work, The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism, which completes their trilogy of freedom and flourishing.
Norms of Liberty
This 2005 book presents Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s thesis that classical liberalism is a political philosophy the purpose of which is to secure a peaceful and orderly society by providing a framework of metanorms within which people can make moral choices for themselves, a moral space for value laden activity. With this in view, politics should be concerned not with guiding individual moral activity but solely with securing and maintaining the conditions for the possibility of pursuing such activity.
Arguing that politics is not suited to making men moral, the authors proclaim the need to remove substantive morality from politics. Liberalism requires not normative moral actions but actions setting up the conditions in which such moral actions can take place. In other words, liberalism is not an equinormative system. Ethical principles are not all of one category, but instead comprise a two-level ethical structure that consists of metanorms (also referred to as political-legal norms) and personal-social ethical norms. Metanormative and normative levels of ethical principles are split because of their different relationships to self-perfection. The conditions for making any type of human flourishing possible are less potent than conditions that advance forms of human flourishing directly. The latter, normative principles, are more directly prescriptive of moral conduct, whereas metanormative principles regulate the conditions under which moral conduct may exist. Natural rights are metanormative principles, but while they are ethical principles, they are not normative principles, because they do not aim at directly promoting human flourishing.
Arguing that politics is not suited to making men moral, the authors proclaim the need to remove substantive morality from politics.
The authors explain that rights are an ethical concept that is not directly concerned with human flourishing. It is concerned, rather, with context-setting — establishing a political and legal order that will not require one form of human flourishing to be preferred over any other form. Rights, as a metanormative principle, give guidance in the formation of a constitution and the political conditions required for people to select and implement the principles of normative morality in their individual and social lives. What is required as the foundation of rights is the existence of an ethical principle that aspires not to guide human conduct in moral activity but to regulate conduct so that conditions can be achieved in which moral actions can occur.
According to Rasmussen and Den Uyl, the context of natural rights is as universal as possible. The purpose of rights is to protect the possibility of self-directedness. Since self-directedness is universally necessary and central to all manifestations of human flourishing, rights create a space for each person to pursue a different and distinct form of life, subject to the constraint of permitting the same space for other people. Self-direction is the common, crucial element in all concrete, distinct forms of human flourishing. The negative natural right to freedom is a metanormative principle because it protects the possibility of self-direction in a social context. Human beings have a natural function or telos — flourishing — that is morally important, but the argument for rights does not justify rights for their being conducive to human flourishing. Rather, their function is to solve the problem of how to achieve integrated political diversity that is compatible with the varied, self-directed, and highly individualized character of human flourishing. This is what Rasmussen and Den Uyl call “liberalism’s problem.” The natural right to liberty permits each individual a sphere of freedom in which self-directed activities can be undertaken without the interference of other people.
Rasmussen and Den Uyl define human flourishing as objective, inclusive, individualized, agent-relative, self-directed, and social. One’s flourishing is desired because it is desirable and choiceworthy. Human flourishing is understood in a biocentric context and is thus ontological (i.e., a real state of being) and not simply a feeling or experience of subjective (i.e., personally estimated) wellbeing. Flourishing is a self-directed activity, an actuality, and an end accomplished through choice, not a passive or static state. Flourishing is complex, individualized, unique, and diverse, and thus involves moral pluralism. However, there can be no human flourishing separate from the lives of individual human persons. A person’s maturation or flourishing also requires a life with others; thus, friendship is a constituent of human flourishing. More generally, however, human sociality is open-ended with respect to a person’s relationships with any other human being.
The authors note that flourishing is an inclusive end, in that the generic (also known as basic or primary) goods and virtues that lead to and comprise human flourishing can be viewed not only as means to one’s personal flourishing but also as partial realizations or constituents of it. Examples of such goods are knowledge, health, physical pursuits, friendship and social relations, beauty, pleasure, intellectual development, creative development, achievement, and safety. Throughout history, the virtues have been said to include qualities such as rationality, honesty, independence, justice, integrity, courage, temperance, benevolence, trustworthiness, productiveness, pride, prudence. Since there exists diversity among human beings in addition to the generic identicalness of their human nature, different persons are able to flourish and to achieve moral virtue in many different ways. Therefore, the generic goods and virtues are also agent-relative, in that one’s own practical wisdom identifies them by appraising relevant generic, individuative, and circumstantial factors.
This is what Rasmussen and Den Uyl call “liberalism’s problem.”
Individual agency is required to discern the specific combination of goods and virtues that comprise the moral flourishing of any particular person as well as to attain and integrate that combination. Rights are a precondition for moral activity, because coerced action can never constitute a moral good. It follows that rights are metanormative principles that create the political and legal conditions that make moral action possible. The legitimate role of the state is to ensure the compossible (i.e., of one thing being possible in conjunction with another) and equal freedom for each person to rank and pursue the various goods and virtues.
A neo-Aristotelian ethical perfectionism is thus consistent with and supportive of a non-perfectionist view of politics. Self-perfection requires pluralism and self-direction. Diverse forms of flourishing are ethically compossible under the rubric of universal metanorms that are natural rights. A person’s human nature calls for his personal flourishing, which in turn requires practical wisdom and self-directedness. The purpose of rights is to protect self-directedness. It follows that self-directedness can be viewed as an intermediate factor between metanormative natural rights and normative human flourishing.
Rasmussen and Den Uyl state that, based on the nature of man and the world, certain natural rights can be identified and an appropriate political order can be instituted. They base this view of natural rights as metanormative principles on the universal characteristics of human nature that call for the protection and preservation of the possibility of self-directedness in society regardless of the situation. Rasmussen and Den Uyl see a problem with attempts to make moral principles the subject of political action or control. Their goal is to abandon legal moralism — the idea that politics is institutionalized ethics. Because they base natural rights not on human flourishing but on the self-direction required to pursue flourishing, they believe they have formulated a strong argument for a non-perfectionist and non-moralistic minimal-state politics.
They say that virtue is not the end of the state, that statecraft is not soulcraft, and that politics is not an appropriate means to make men moral. Rather, the state should be concerned with self-directedness. Rights protect the possibility of individual self-directedness in a social setting and are therefore a type of metanormative ethical principle, not intended to guide individual moral conduct but to regulate the conditions under which moral conduct can occur. Rights specify the conditions under which the pursuit of personal projects is legitimate and thereby to make possible and protect the conditions necessary for personal flourishing.
Their goal is to abandon legal moralism — the idea that politics is institutionalized ethics.
An Aristotelian self-perfectionist approach to ethics can thus be shown to support the natural right to liberty that itself provides a solid foundation for a minimal state. This approach gives liberty moral significance by demonstrating that the natural right to liberty is a social and political condition necessary for human flourishing — the ultimate moral standard in Aristotelian ethics, interpreted as a natural-end ethics. This provides the foundation for a classical liberal political theory within the Aristotelian tradition.
The Perfectionist Turn
This 2016 book extends Den Uyl and Rasmussen’s thesis, from Norms of Liberty, that liberalism is a political philosophy of metanorms, not one providing specific norms that guide personal moral conduct. In it, they make a convincing case that the individual is at the center of ethics, and they explain how ethics can be independent of, yet in harmony with, politics. They maintain that a neo-Aristotelian ethical framework (as expressed in their theory of individual perfectionism) is consonant with a liberal, non-perfectionist, political theory. They also argue that ethical and political theories should be firmly integrated with an overall philosophical system, and they propose two perspectives from which to analyze ethical theory — the template of respect and the template of responsibility. These are not theories of ethics but frameworks or approaches within which moral theorizing occurs.
The template of respect, with which they disagree, implies that the necessity of living among persons is the principal reason to develop norms of conduct. Essentially, the template of respect is related to the idea of dignity and is concerned with relations among persons. Respect is a way of regarding and treating persons with equal respect and equal dignity and as an end, never solely as a means. The other-directed character of respect melds the self into others, resulting in an inclination toward universalism. Dignity is the basis of worthiness in the rubric of respect. To respect dignity requires people to give consideration to everyone who possesses it. The result is a call for inclusiveness, tolerance, political role, openness, universality, and neutrality. Because equal respect is a political role, a legislative model results. Such an approach views agents as undifferentiated and interchangeable. What is mainly respected under the legislative model is not the individual human person but the authority of the rulers. This political perspective emphasizes cooperative activity, consensus building, and public reasoning. Respecting people based on their inherent, equal dignity is the basis of the authority to make demands and claims. An ethics of respect is essentially a communal or social phenomenon. Modern doctrines such as Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, and altruism fall under the template of respect. An ethics of respect starts with the idea that the purpose of ethics is to discover our duties and to fulfill them. It is essentially concerned with legislation in the form of universal principles. Its tendency is to rely on meta-persons or concepts such as noumenal selves, impartial spectators, appeals to public reason, idealized agents, and social utility calculation.
They make a convincing case that the individual is at the center of ethics, and they explain how ethics can be independent of, yet in harmony with, politics.
Den Uyl and Rasmussen instead place the center of moral concern with the individual, adopting and defending the template of responsibility as a framework within which to base one’s self-perfection. The template of responsibility is basically agent-centered and begins by recognizing the existential condition that each responsible and choosing person must make a life for himself. Under this rubric, self-direction and integrity are central to morality because personal responsibility for one’s life is primary. Morality accordingly proceeds from an examination of each individual person’s own actual circumstances, characteristics, and actions.
The nature of a human being understood in terms of what the person is as an individual. What he requires for his individual flourishing is the basis for determining standards of worthiness. Thus, while the good and the right tend to be considered separately in the framework of respect, they are united in the framework of responsibility, which recognizes the teleological nature of both and which holds its ultimate value to be integrity, involving both values and virtues. This template is consistent with an individualistic perspective and the centrality of reason. The standard for ethical knowledge under individual perfectionism is thus practical in nature, its purpose being to guide an individual’s conduct by the use of practical wisdom.
Each person is considered an individual agent whose responsibilities include interactions with others who are also responsible for themselves. Others are part of one’s life; therefore, the presence of others is already built into the moral world. Nonetheless, Den Uyl and Rasmussen explain that moral action must be more individualistic than generic or communal. An individual’s own interests make no normative claim on any person who cares, or does not care, about the individual in question. The value of groups with obligatory norms and rules within which one finds oneself, or with which one chooses to participate, must therefore be understood in terms of a person’s main purpose of deciding how to fashion his life. Only the template of responsibility sufficiently recognizes the individual nature of the good and the moral weight that it places on the individual ethical agent. Accordingly, the question is not if and how something might benefit oneself, but rather what kind of self a person is making by attaining that benefit.
Because people can think and choose and can recognize cause and effect, they are morally responsible beings. The human good is connected to human nature, which involves life, the source of value, and free will, the element of responsibility. The connection of life to value is explained in great detail in chapters 5 and 6 of The Perfectionist Turn. Moral realism holds that there are moral facts and that there are ways of acting that are good for a human being. Den Uyl and Rasmussen thoroughly explain that we ought to choose to live and to try to flourish because life is desirable and choiceworthy. Whereas the inherent potentiality to flourish as a human being determines man’s obligation, this responsibility differs in specificity for each person. Each individual is responsible for voluntarily choosing, creating, and entering relationships in civil society that contribute toward his flourishing. It is each person’s responsibility to form his own judgments and to live by the work of his own mind, to achieve and sustain the human life that is his own. Each person has potentialities, is the steward of his own time, talents, and energies, and is responsible for being the person he has the potential to become by means of his own choices and actions. Each unique, individual person is morally autonomous and is responsible for his actions. He is responsible for applying reason, wisdom, and experience to his own specifically situated circumstances. Particular ways of acting advance a person’s good while other ways hinder it. Once a person has initiated his rational capacity, results will occur that express the individualization process in a variety of ways.
Morality accordingly proceeds from an examination of each individual person’s own actual circumstances, characteristics, and actions.
Part One of The Perfectionist Turn (1) provides an overview of, and introduces the basic details and components of, individualistic perfectionism, (2) discusses the nature and role of practical wisdom, and (3) justifies the authors’ separation of ethics into distinct domains as explained in their previous work, Norms of Liberty. The second part further defends the foundations presented in the first part and argues that the locus of the solutions to ethical dilemmas lies, not in any impersonal rule, but in a perspective rooted in the ideas of perfectionism, personalism, and naturalism.
According to the authors, it has unfortunately become the norm of political philosophy to untether itself from the rest of philosophy. Many contemporary philosophers reject comprehensive philosophy in favor of a self-contained domain of political theorizing. For example, Martha Nussbaum, John Rawls, and Amartya Sen (and to a lesser extent Gerald Gaus and Steven Darwall) assume that political philosophy can be separated from comprehensive frameworks. All these thinkers advocate a template of respect for persons and emphasize the legislative model of ethics.
Den Uyl and Rasmussen, however, contend that it is a fundamental error to assume that political philosophy can detach itself from more comprehensive philosophical frameworks and stances. They explain that political philosophy is unavoidably tethered to more basic perspectives regarding reality, human nature, knowledge, and ethics, and that no political philosophy is free from deeper assumptions. Thinkers necessarily have starting points, and they cannot extricate themselves from the anchor of a comprehensive doctrine. It is only a question of whether they will treat these linkages openly and explicitly or whether they will consider them restrictively and implicitly, smuggling in undefended assumptions with respect to reality, human nature, and ethics. Our authors thus champion the necessity of the tethered character of political philosophy. Objecting to the untethering of political theory from philosophy, Den Uyl and Rasmussen advocate individualistic perfectionism and the template of responsibility for one’s self-perfection.
The authors also explain that a realistic and a neo-Aristotelian naturalistic account of ethics can be explicitly tethered to particular metaphysical and epistemological positions. They argue that the natural order consists of entities that possess natures, and that it is in an entity’s nature that we discover its manner and mode of existence and how it develops and changes. The nature of something is made up of its inherent potentialities. Its change process involves the activities that actualize these potentialities. Things that are good for specific living entities are cognitive-independent relationships of appropriateness between the living entity and things that are beneficial for it. Like the nature of all other living entities, human nature is teleological in that human beings have a telos or natural function, and this natural function is of moral importance. Understanding what this natural function is reveals information about the character of human flourishing, and human actions can be morally evaluated in terms of flourishing.
The naturalistic fallacy, by contrast, results from attempts to demonstrate that there is a gap between what something is and what is valued: a fact and a value are distinct things; a person cannot derive the latter from the former. The is-ought dichotomy or gap is the notion that one cannot derive moral principles (i.e., how individuals should act) from the facts of reality. Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue against this fallacy, explaining that a human being is inherently value-laden. Like all living things, human beings have natural ends. The actuality of what a living entity is determines what it ought to do. The fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values. Moral statements about the good or the right are pronouncements about what is in fact good or right for a particular human life. A valid concept of value necessitates the context of “for whom” and “for what.” Value judgments of morality or value have to be attained by reference to the facts of reality. Where else could valid judgments about these matters possibly come from? There is no contradiction between teleology and one’s choice to become. Teleology allows for change, and a naturalistic standard (as opposed to fallacy) assumes self-direction, purposefulness, and choice.
Many contemporary philosophers reject comprehensive philosophy in favor of a self-contained domain of political theorizing.
Den Uyl and Rasmussen offer a neo-Aristotelian ethical framework as a powerful alternative to contemporary ethical thinking, especially to ethical constructivism. In general, constructivism is based on the modern rationalist prescription that what we conceptually consider can be understood separately from the realities that give rise to the concepts themselves. This is discussed in detail in Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s third book, The Realist Turn.
The constructivist point of view maintains that the only reality we can know is that which is exhibited by human thought, that reality exists as a construction of the mind, and that the focus should be on consciousness and the products of man’s mind rather than on existence and the nature of man. Constructivism thus avoids the key issue of the role of metaphysics in epistemology, ethics, and volition.
In ethics, constructivism is the view that normative beliefs are determined by some idealized process of rational deliberation, agreement, or choice and not by facts about a prior and independent normative reality, and that the moral principles that people ought to accept are the ones they would agree to under some specific conditions of choice. There are answers to moral questions only because there are proper procedures for determining them. This perspective holds that moral statements are true or false because they are based on principles that are constructions of thought and not because they are discovered in reality.
Den Uyl and Rasmussen point out that abstractions are tools for knowing reality and are not the realities themselves, and they caution people to be mindful not to assign or attribute the modes or forms of abstractions to the realities they refer to or describe. Since individuals exercise moral agency in particular situations, moral values should be anchored in the details of an exercising agency rather than abstract conceptions owing their objectivity to universality. They explain that universality cannot replace, and is not necessary for, objectivity. They maintain that ethics is not essentially legislative and that the rule-governed approach to ethics wrongly seeks to treat cases as identical and to substitute agents for one another in efforts to determine what one should do. They oppose the modern tendency to employ the legislative model of ethics, in which idealized versions of persons or rules are used to get individuals to follow the dictates of public reason.
The reality is that there is nothing automatic about the process of making ethical decisions and taking ethical actions.
A claim and command approach to morality, in contrast to an agent-centered approach, politicizes the process and distorts the way in which people view the nature of morality. Constructivism in particular emphasizes freedom for the public rather than for the individual. It promotes a juridical shift away from the individual and the freedom of the individual. Procedural realism is thus substituted for substantial realism. A rule-governed approach attempts to treat cases as essentially the same. The reality is that there is nothing automatic about the process of making ethical decisions and taking ethical actions. Morality (or ethics) is a practical science concerned with knowledge and action. Ethical knowledge is the knowledge used by an individual human being in concrete, contingent, and particular situations that vary from person to person. With respect to concrete moral actions the human way of being is neither passive nor of the one-size-fits-all type.
In an intriguing chapter entitled “The Entrepreneur as Moral Hero,” Den Uyl and Rasmussen see an analogy between entrepreneurship and ethical conduct. The authors discuss the creativity of human beings both in producing wealth and in making moral character, two activities that are parts of a flourishing life. Both entrepreneurship and moral action require openness and alertness in the midst of changing circumstances across multiple dimensions; both involve insight and evaluation in living one’s life. “Ethical wealth, like economic wealth, will be a function of the degree to which individuals take it upon themselves to produce good lives” (441). In the market, the entrepreneur’s success is measured in terms of profit. In ethics, one’s “life as a whole” is the context and good moral character is the measure of success.
The Realist Turn
Critical to Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s explanation of metanormative individual rights and an ethics of individualistic perfectionism is metaphysical realism — the conviction that man and the world exist apart from our cognition of them, and that people can know their nature. In their just released book, The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism, they provide the foundation for both individual rights and individualistic perfectionism by defending metaphysical realism. This new book completes their trilogy of freedom and flourishing.
The central points of the first two books in their trilogy provide the context for this book. After observing the absence of natural rights language within a tradition associated with classical liberalism and libertarianism, the first five chapters recapitulate what the first two books have to say about: (1) the nature of natural rights; (2) the justification of natural rights; (3) the refutation of objections to natural rights ideas; (4) the relationship of natural rights to ethical principles; and (5) the explanation of why metaphysical realism is critical for arguing for natural rights. The fifth chapter also examines the views of Alasdair MacIntyre. The remaining chapters elucidate and defend metaphysical realism against some of the major contemporary objections to it.
Rasmussen and Den Uyl dispute the notion that it is not possible to know the nature of reality and that knowledge is only of our constructions — be they mental, linguistic, or social.
Den Uyl and Rasmussen continue the critique of the views of John Rawls, Stephen Darwall, and other moral constructivists that they began in The Perfectionist Turn, explaining more broadly why constructivism is false with respect not only to moral knowledge but to knowledge of all types. They also provide a detailed and critical assessment of the thoughts of Hilary Putnam, the leading contemporary critic of metaphysical realism, as well as the views of Alasdair MacIntyre who identifies with the same neo-Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition as the authors, but who is opposed to natural rights.
In The Realist Turn, Rasmussen and Den Uyl note the many and insuperable problems constructivism faces and why metaphysical realism is a much stronger position. They dispute the notion that it is not possible to know the nature of reality and that knowledge is only of our constructions — be they mental, linguistic, or social. In making their case they analyze and criticize the central neo-pragmatist objections advanced by W.V.O. Quine and Hilary Putnam against metaphysical realism. In addition, they discuss and evaluate the various objections made by detractors and critics of cognitive realism, including conceptual relativists, conceptualists, conceptual pragmatists, logicists, Platonists, and fallibilists.
They also argue that a realist turn (i.e., one in which individual rights are based on the natural order of things) is required for a proper comprehension and defense of freedom. They explain that the main reason many contemporary libertarians and classical liberals are reluctant to uphold individual rights is that they do not understand the unique ethical nature of natural rights as metanormative, and that this in turn is because they do not comprehend that individual rights are natural and tied to metaphysical realism. Metaphysical realism is crucial for rejecting the assumption that all moral norms are of the same type — that is, for showing that equinormativity is false — and this lends further support for their central claim that individual rights are metanorms.
Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s writings provide the most significant, persuasive, and coherent contribution to political and ethical thought in recent years. They convincingly argue for a perfectionist basis for non-perfectionist politics by: (1) distinguishing between norms and metanorms, (2) employing a neo-Aristotelian understanding of human flourishing, (3) emphasizing the necessity for metaphysical realism, (4) recognizing that not everything is choiceworthy, and (5) maintaining the correctness of an ethics of responsibility. These well thought out views deserve a wide audience of reflective individuals.
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Den Uyl, Douglas J. 1991. The Virtue of Prudence. New York: Peter Lang.
_____. 1992. Teleology and agent-centeredness. In The Monist 75 no.1 (January), 14–33.
_____. 1993. The right to welfare and the virtue of charity. Social Philosophy and Policy 10, no. 1 (Winter): 192–224.
Den Uyl, Douglas J. and Douglas B. Rasmussen, eds. 1984. The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Den Uyl, Douglas J. and Douglas B. Rasmussen. 1995. Rights as metanormative principles. In Liberty for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Tibor R. Machan and Douglas B. Rasmussen. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
_____. 2016. The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
Rasmussen, Douglas B. 1999. Human flourishing and the appeal to human nature. Social Philosophy and Philosophy (1–43).
_____. 2002. Rand on obligation and value. The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 4, no. 1 (Fall): 69–86.
_____. 2006. Regarding choice and the foundation of morality. The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 7, no. 2 (Spring): 309–28.
_____. 2007. The Aristotelian significance of the section titles of Atlas Shrugged. In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion. Edited by Edward W. Younkins. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 33–45.
_____. 2014. Grounding necessary truth in the nature of things: a redux. In Shifting the Paradigm: Alternative Perspectives on Induction. Edited by Paolo C. Biondi and Louis F. Groarke, De Gruyter: 343–80.
Rasmussen, Douglas B. and Douglas J. Den Uyl. 1991. Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order. LaSalle, IL: Open Court.
_____. 1997. Liberalism Defended. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
_____. Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
_____. 2020 The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Skoble, Aeon J. ed. 2008. Reading Rasmussen and Den Uyl. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.