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Libertarianism: The Moral and the Practical


If I say that a government activity — “public” schooling, perhaps, or the war on selected drug merchants and users — helps turn the inner cities into hellholes and otherwise makes people’s lives miserable, is that a moral objection or a practical (utilitarian or generally consequentialist) objection?

Some libertarians are inclined to say it’s a utilitarian objection, but I’ve long been uncomfortable with that answer. For one thing, valid or not, in philosophy, utilitarianism is recognized as a moral theory, so utilitarian objections cannot be excluded from the realm of moral propositions. Pointing out that a policy destroys the inner cities certainly sounds like a moral objection.

Leaving that aside, we must inquire whether libertarian concerns are really divisible into, on the one hand, a concern with duties (deontology), for example, respecting individual rights, and on the other, a concern with practical consequences. This is an unfortunate feature of many libertarians’ thinking, but it’s not confined to libertarians. In this bifurcated view of the human world, there is a list of moral “dos” and “don’ts” that are not directly related to so-called practical matters, specifically, the conditions under which human beings can prosper on this earth. That strikes me as odd, if for no other reason than that in this view, the “moral” side appears to outrank the “practical” side: success is nice, but the ethical test has priority. You hear libertarians say they would favor freedom even if it did not promote good outcomes such as prosperity because people have a right to freedom that is separate from its consequences. (Of course, they don’t actually believe that freedom could have bad consequences. But is that just a lucky coincidence? More on that below.)

I’m hardly alone in my uneasiness with this separation of concerns into the moral and the practical. In my camp is no less a personage than Adam Smith. Look at this passage from The Wealth of Nations:

[The] happiness and perfection of a man, considered not only as an individual, but as the member of a family, of a state, and of the great society of mankind, was the object which the ancient moral philosophy proposed to investigate. In that philosophy the duties of human life were treated of as subservient to the happiness and perfection of human life. But when moral, as well as natural philosophy, came to be taught only as subservient to theology, the duties of human life were treated of as chiefly subservient to the happiness of a life to come. In the ancient philosophy the perfection of virtue was represented as necessarily productive, to the person who possessed it, of the most perfect happiness in this life. In the modern philosophy it was frequently represented as generally, or rather as almost always, inconsistent with any degree of happiness in this life; and heaven was to be earned only by penance and mortification, by the austerities and abasement of a monk; not by the liberal, generous, and spirited conduct of a man. Casuistry, and an ascetic morality, made up, in most cases, the greater part of the moral philosophy of the schools. By far the most important of all the different branches of philosophy became in this manner by far the most corrupted.

In commenting on this passage, Tibor Machan and David Brown wrote, in “The Self-Imposed Poverty of Economics,”

Smith saw that when morality, or ethics, is conceived along lines that would be fully realized in the work of Immanuel Kant — who denied that anything done to advance one’s own cause can have moral significance — moral thinking cannot embrace the virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom. (Nor can any moral virtue be construed or justified, however broadly, in relation to the acting agent’s own well-being and flourishing.) But prudence — recognized as a prominent virtue indeed in the ethics of Socrates and Aristotle — would make plenty of room for an ethical conception of most economic activity.… With prudence expelled from the moral realm, however, all the economists can do to render commerce and business respectable is to collapse them, along with the rest of life, into expressions of near-bodily functions à la Hobbes.…

As we see, the division of human life into the moral and the practical is of recent vintage. Smith’s reference to “ancient philosophy” is a reference to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (and perhaps the Thomists whom they inspired), for whom this chasm would be unfathomable. Moral inquiry for them was essentially an investigation into the art of living as a reasoning, language-using social being. The concern of ethics, according to Aristotle, is to learn how such a being must think and act in order to flourish individually and as a member of society; the object of consideration is “the practical life of man as possessing reason.” That’s why prudence (or practical wisdom) finds a place on his list of virtues. In Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics, Henry B. Veatch elaborates why ethics may be regarded as the art of living, although, to be sure, it is an art unlike all other arts.

Utilitarian flaws

So I, for one, don’t accept the division of the case for freedom into the moral and the practical. It’s a mistake, as well as harmful to the cause. But does that mean I am a consequentialist, or utilitarian? Heavens no! The consequentialist case for freedom is too insecure. How would you feel if someone said, “I will respect your rights to life, liberty, and property as long as I calculate that doing so will produce the greatest good”? The classic monkey wrench in the utilitarian machine is the question whether one person may morally be killed so that his harvested organs may save the lives of five others. The utilitarian might respond, “Perhaps, unless the fear that this potential engenders would subtract too much from the total happiness.”

You see the problem. Practically speaking, how would a utilitarian go about netting out the good and bad consequences when interpersonal comparisons of subjective utility are by their nature ruled out? Moreover, as Gary Chartier emphasizes in his book Anarchy and Legal Order, the components of well-being are disparate and incommensurable — that is, not reducible to an underlying homogeneous element.

One response is along these lines: Yes, act, or direct, utilitarianism, in which each action is to be evaluated according to whether it will produce the greatest good/happiness/pleasure, is indeed problematic. Therefore let us substitute for it rule, or indirect, utilitarianism, along the lines of Henry Hazlitt’s Foundations of Morality, according to which it is rules, not acts, that are to be judged according to their tendency to create the greatest good, namely, by maximizing social cooperation.

That seems like a promising approach, but as Roderick Long points out, there’s a problem: “It has often been claimed that indirect utilitarianism is unstable, and must collapse either into direct utilitarianism on the one hand or into ‘rules fetishism’ on the other.” In other words, a hardy rule utilitarian will follow a rule even when it is expected not to maximize good consequences — if he did otherwise, he’d be an act utilitarian. But then following the rule, not maximizing the good, has become the overriding objective (regardless of why the rule was adopted initially) — and that is no longer utilitarianism. It is deontology. (The philosopher David Lyons prominently advanced this “collapse” argument, and the utilitarian J.J.C. Smart conceded the point.)

Thus, utilitarianism is fatally flawed. Rejecting it, however, does not obligate one to embrace deontology, or “rules fetishism.” In the Aristotelian (eudaemonist or virtue-ethics) approach, a concern with consequences is obviously justified — remember, we’re interested in “the practical life of man as possessing reason” — but that concern figures in the very formulation of the virtues, just as considerations of virtue, such as justice (including respect for rights), figure in our formulation of what constitutes good consequences. Long writes,

On this view, human welfare (whether individual or general) and justice are conceptually interrelated, with neither concept being basic but each depending in part on the other (and all the other virtues) for its content, just as Aristotle defines virtue and human flourishing in terms of one another. [For details, see Long’s important article “Why Does Justice Have Good Consequences?”]

Finally, both sides of the artificial moral-practical divide need each other if the strongest case for freedom is to be proffered. Long writes,

Most people are unlikely to find the deontological case for a given course of action compelling so long as they believe it would have terrible consequences; likewise, they are equally unlikely to find the consequentialist case compelling so long as they believe that the action violates human dignity, or equality, or liberty.

But there’s more to this than strategic considerations, Long adds, because in real life,

one rarely finds members of either camp relying solely on a single set of considerations. It is a rare moral or political polemic indeed that does not include both consequentialist and deontological arguments….

Whatever they may say officially, most consequentialists would be deeply disturbed to discover that their favoured policies slighted human dignity, and most deontologists would be deeply disturbed to discover that their favoured policies had disastrous consequences.

This “suggests that most professed deontologists and consequentialists are actually, to their credit, crypto-eudaemonists,” Long writes elsewhere.

This is a big subject about which much has been written. Thus, lots more could be said. I hope I’ve said enough for now to justify seeing the moral and practical cases for freedom as one and the same.

This article was originally published in the May 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.