Libertarianism vs traditional morality? No!

Philosophy Political Philosophy

I think a lot of libertarians don’t really care about libertarianism, they simply care about their own pet morality, and libertarianism – so they think – provides a blunt weapon with which to cudgel those who do not share that morality. Here’s an example: In recent history I encountered a particularly nasty piece of work (who shall remain nameless, other than to say he’s an individual whose re-entry to NZ has been denied because of his uncovered history of promoting “man boy love”) who was adamant that no real classical liberal or libertarian could possibly be a person who thought that same-sex marriage was immoral, because libertarians and classical liberals are tolerant people who don’t make such bigoted moral judgements.

He was wrong. Classical liberalism has nothing at all to say about whether or not a person will or should find himself agreeing with certain traditional moral mores like those about homosexuality. Read that again: Classical liberalism, and libertarianism for that matter, has absolutely nothing to say about whether or not a person should agree with moral judgements about homosexuality, or any number of other moral issues associated with dreaded “conservatism.” Edward Feser explains why here, and it’s worth a read. Just a note – he uses the term “fusionism” and “libertarian conservatism” in roughly the same way that I use the term “Classical Liberalism.”

Here’s a sneak peek at what he says:

If I had to sum up the common moral vision of libertarians and conservatives, I would say it is a commitment to the idea of the dignity of man.  On this vision, a human being is not a mere animal, but a rational being with the power of free moral choice, a person – a creature made, as religious conservatives would put it, in the image of God.  And because he is this, he (a) cannot legitimately be used as a resource for others, a source of labor and property which may be appropriated by the state for its purposes without his consent, and (b) is subject to the demands of a moral law which require him to live in a way which accords with his unique dignity, rather than in thrall to his every fleeting inclination.  Libertarians stress (a) and conservatives (b), but both are united in their insistence that a man ought not to be a slave, either to another’s desires or to his own.  And it is this insistence that separates them from the Left, which in its various factions tends to portray human beings in dehumanizing terms, as little more than clever animals, or as cogs in a vast social machine, helpless victims of forces beyond their control – and thus neither fit to rule themselves nor capable of living up to any morality that would require putting chains on their appetites.

Well put!

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Craig J. Bolton November 12, 2007, 2:52 am

    First of all, I’m not quite certain what you are saying, but it sounds like, under the rubric of what you assert
    [without any evidence] “a lot of libertarians” believe, that you are simply reiterating the old tory conservative canard that libertarians are basically libertines. Here is my canned clarification on that issue, which I believe is somewhat different than yours:

    WHAT IS LIBERTARIANISM?

    Somehow, since those dim days in the 60s when former classical liberals and traditional Americans were looking for a new label to describe their political outlook, and fastened on the label “libertarianism,” we have lost our way. We have lost our way, I believe, partly because the original vision was never crystal clear. It was distorted, at the beginning, by what Hayek once called “Individualism: True and False.” But it also has become more distorted over time by the success, such as it is, of the “libertarian ideology.” A popular ideology is one that people want to associate themselves with, no matter how different their own views may be.

    So the purpose of this little essay is simple. It is to “set the record straight.” It is not to establish a “bright line,” not to establish a new dogma, for there are always grays at the margin, but it is to say something about what libertarians must, at a minimum, believe if they are, in fact, libertarians.

    First of all, libertarians acknowledge that society is bigger than a political ideology, or, at least, it should be, Hitler, Stalin and Torquemada to the contrary. A society is the many many ways that peaceable human beings interact with one another for what they believe to be their mutual benefit. There is no “political issue” in a society, qua society, since a society is simply about peaceable and voluntary interactions between individuals. Some of these interactions may turn out to be in fact mutually beneficial, some will not, but they are all initially voluntary and peaceable.

    As opposed to voluntary and peaceable interactions, government is essentially about coercive force. It is the agency or institutionalization of approved or sanctioned coercive force. Now since coercive force is antithetical to peaceable and voluntary social interaction, the use of government in a society is, or should be, a last resort. Government may be useful (or it may not be) to suppress those individuals who are themselves persistently violent in their dealings with other persons. It may be useful in thwarting a military invasion of a society by a different, aggressive and hostile society. But it is never useful in promoting “good morals” or “spreading freedom” or any of the other fine sounding goals that we may desire for our society and others, but which we cannot effectively promote through the use of coercive force.

    The foregoing is libertarianism. That is all there is to libertarianism – this distinction between society and government, and the associated understanding of what government is suited to accomplish and not suited to accomplish. Libertarianism is not about having a “free spirit,” or thinking independently or asserting that “people have rights,” although all those things may be good things in themselves. Libertarianism is simply about a fundamental understanding of the nature of society and the nature of government. If you have and consistently apply this understanding then you are a libertarian, regardless of your other views on other topics. If you have views contradictory to that core understanding, then you are not a libertarian.

    ======================================================

    Now you may want to assert that “this is merely a restatement of what I’m saying,” but is it? What you present as the antithesis of what you’re saying is that “no real classical liberal or libertarian could possibly be a person who thought that same-sex marriage was immoral, because libertarians and classical liberals are tolerant people who don’t make such bigoted moral judgements”. Note the term “tolerant” which I will get back to in a second.

    It seems to me that whether you can agree with the above and simultaneously say the things you’ve said depends upon whether you think that “moral judgments” are or are not properly the basis of law, just because they are moral judgments. Is murder, for instance, outlawed because it is immoral, or for some other reason?

    If moral judgments invariably should be reflected in law, then your essay is right and the essay I have posted above is wrong – since law should reflect morality [should, for instance, not recognize gay marriage, not on the basis that gay marriage is a species of involuntary forcible relationship, but solely upon the basis that it is “immoral”]. If, however, the above essay is correct, then it would be improper for the law not to recognize gay marriage since no one is being coerced to do anything in such an arrangement. It is merely another form of voluntary contract.

    It would thus seem that the anonymous strawman you have constructed is thus right and you are wrong. “Tolerance,” you see, traditionally means what it says – that one allows others to go their own way WHETHER OR NOT YOU AGREE WITH THEM OR THINK THEY ARE BEING IMMORAL. You don’t enact your morality, just because it is your morality. You first ask the question “Is this the sort of thing the state should be legislating about, given what that implies?” IN MAKING DECISIONS ABOUT APPROPRIATE PUBLIC POLICIES before you ask the question “Is this immoral?”

    Now if your essay is not about the above, not about your recommendations for appropriate or inappropriate public policy, but is purely about your own brand of morality and how you believe it to be superior to that of other persons, then go for it. But is the correct context for such pronouncements, or would you be better advised to stand on a street corner slapping a Bible while you made your pronouncements about moral virtue?

  • Glenn November 12, 2007, 2:16 pm

    Craig, if – as you say – you’re not really sure what I’m saying, then the best advice I could offer is to read the article. As I noted, it’s not mine, it’s by Edward Feser. The point I was drawing on had nothing to do – quite literally – with whether or not morality is the basis of law, so I won’t even touch on that. It was about whether or not a libertarian or classical liberal view (treated here as a political stance) is or is not compatible with holding traditional moral mores. if you think that a more automatically becomes a law, then additional complications will arise, but I’ve not said that. And incidentally, saying that morality is the basis of law does not imply that every moral fact will translate into a legal fact.

    Additionally, there’s definitely no straw man here about tolerance. The individual I was thinking of when I used the “anonymous” example is Jim Peron, if it interests you. And tolerating a belief or practice has nothing at all to do with whether or not you agree or approve, that is true – and nor did I say anything to suggest otherwise. If the straw is burning, I’m not the one holding the match here.

  • Craig J. Bolton November 12, 2007, 5:08 pm

    Well, I’m glad you clarified that, or did you, in fact, just sidestep the issues that usually rapidly emerge in this sort of discussion?

    The point I’m making is rather straightforward. If you indeed believe that libertarianism or classical liberalism are no more than a “political stance” [as you put it], which I certainly do believe, then the issue that seems to be bothering you never arises. If the state is never a “moral teacher” BY THE NATURE OF WHAT A STATE IS, and its laws are not meant to be expressive of morals or mores, then you don’t have to worry about whether or not, e.g., gay marriage is moral or not IN THAT CONTEXT.

    Gay marriage should be legal or not on the purely pragmatic grounds of whether or not it involves a voluntary contract, not on the moral grounds of whether “we” should or do approve of homosexuality. Yes, there may then may be many things which are harmful to people, and which you might prefer not to have happen, but they such matters should not be illegal on the grounds that “we know better” but only on the grounds that those participating in such activities are not doing so willingly.

    But I sense from your original blog entry and from what you’ve said and not said in your response that you are still worried about the morality of homosexuality or other activities which you have concluded are immoral IN THE CONTEXT OF POLITICS, and not merely in the contexts of personal morality or even the abstract discipline of morality qua morality. Am I wrong?

  • Glenn November 12, 2007, 8:24 pm

    Whether or not same-sex marriage ought to be legal is another matter here. One might consider that it ought to be legal in spite of the fact that the same person thinks there’s something wrong with it (in fact a hardcore libertarian would just argue for the privatization of marriage altogether). Or one might think that there are some reasons for not providing same sex marriage. I have beliefs about that, but hopefully they are not (logically) implied in the blog entry, as they were not meant to be.

    Bear in mind too that not all Classical Liberals are utilitarians (I got the impression in your third paragraph that you’re assuming the two go together).

    The real-world belief that I wrote against here is the belief that you can’t really be a libertarian while having a moral problem with – and again this was just the example that was used by this person at the time – same sex marriage. Whether there are grounds for the state not providing same sex marriage (I assume that’s what you meant by “in the context of politics”) is not something that the blog post was about. I don’t think the state should provide such things, but then, that’s actually (in part) because I’m less of an interventionist than many who take the label of “libertarian.”

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