Thursday, 6 April 2006

Cue Card Libertarianism - Morality

It's become clear in recent days that there is more confusion over libertarianism than I'd thought. Recent comments suggest that readers are taking libertarian politics as a guide to morality - that 'do what you wilt' is thought to be 'the whole of the law,' at least when it comes to ethics.

This would be a mistake, since libertarian politics is essentially silent on morality. Morality pertains to the field of ethics, not of politics. You don't look to the field of politics to determine your moral choices, you look to the science of ethics. Naturally, in libertarian politics, the two are linked: You must be free in order to be moral. Without freedom no morality is possible, since without freedom no free choice is possible. As Ayn Rand points out, "morality ends where the gun begins." You must be free from coercion in order to make your own moral choices as to how you live.

Men's survival and flourishing demands that they be free to pursue their own paths in their own way, with the moral space needed to do so (provided of course they don't initiate force against another.) That moral space is yours to fill. The way you choose to fill it helps to determine your success or your failure; your happiness or lack thereof; your wealth, or your impecuniosity. Good choices tend to bring reward and happiness; bad choices not. Your choices are your responsibility -- responsibility being the flipside of freedom.

To be free means to be free to make choices: you are free to succeed -- you are also free to fail. Saying you should be free to do something is not an endorsement of that something -- it's an endorsement only that you should be free to do it. It's your right to make your own choices. It's my right to judge those choices.

It is with choice that morality is concerned. It is with your freedom to make those choices that libertarian politics is concerned.

So qua libertarian, I will defend your right to believe in nonsense; I will maintain your right to have appalling musical taste; I will argue for you right to be self-destructive; I will fight in your corner for your right to dispose of your money as you wish. But in my capacity as a human being, which is to say as an ethicist (which, like it or not, we all are) I wll judge you foolish for believing in nonsense, tasteless for listening to bland muck, mistaken for being self-destructive, and misguided for giving your money away.

Acting ethically is not simply recognising what is and isn't the government's business, or what you have a right to do. It is recognising what is in your own best interests -- what you should do -- and then going right out and doing it.

UPDATE: Link to related PDF article by Tibor Machan added.

This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by libertarians, originally published in The Free Radical in 1993. The 'Introduction' to the series is here.

LINKS: Cue Card Libertarianism - Altruism - Not PC
Cue Card Libertarianism - Introduction - Not PC
Cue Card Libertarianism -- Freedom (Liberty) - Not PC
Philosophy vis-a-vis the free society [PDF] - Tibor Machan, Mises Institute

TAGS: Cue_Card_Libertarianism, Ethics, Politics, Libertarianism, Objectivism, Philosophy


  1. It's become clear in recent days that there is more confusion over libertarianism than I'd thought.

    Not me! This is old news.
    Even in libertarian circles people think this. When you're just a hammer you see every problem as a nail, but there are other- and sharper- tools in the shed.

    Ask a libertarian for their moral judgement on any given concrete case and 7/10 they'll say "Who care's as long as there's no compulsion?" And they'll smugly think they've solved the problem.

  2. So Libertarian politics does not prescribe a system of morality, it's adoption merely opens a moral vacuum, a total freedom of choice, to be filled in whichever manner best suits the individuals personal goals?

    So Libertarianism can be seen as an 'amoral' system, which disclaims responsibility for the actions of it's adherents based on its existence as merely a structure erected to allow people freedom of choice?

    How then could Libertarian politics NOT be construed as 'do what thou wilt'? (Very esoteric Crowley quote by the way). If no particular code of behaviour is prescribed by way of society's permission/denial, then even if there is no explicit call to 'do as you please,' it certainly exists tacitly!

    The best defense possible for the total moral vacuum that would be created by Libertarianism is that at least (most) Libertarians don't (openly) encourage behaviour that is considered, by today's standards, 'amoral'.

    And that is hardly high praise...

  3. Den, all politics in the sense you mean is 'amoral,' since politics as a branch of philosophy is a different branch to the branch of ethics. If philosophy was a skyscraper, with each floor supported by those beneath, then the upper floors would be for the field of politics, with those just below housing the field of ethics.

    Your ethics determine your politics, not the other way round -- unless of course you're a very dangerous politician (see for example any number of right-wing Republicans, or left-wing post-modernists).

    Here's the crux of it: Libertarian Objectivists, such as myself, maintain that one must be moral in order to live; and in order to be moral we must be free from physical coercion. If you're not free to choose, then you're not even free to obey the libertarian injunction: 'Do what thou wilt, but don't initiate force on another.' Freedom = choice.

    What we libertarians seek then is not a moral vacuum, but the moral space necessary within which we can each choose our values and pursue them; can each seek to secure our own life, our own liberty and to pursue our own happiness in our own way and based on our own moral choices.

    Like I said, in order to be moral, you must be free. One cannot be a moral agent in a society in which choice has been barred to you, and you humanity consequently removed. The amoral politic is not the one in which we are free to make moral choices, but precisely the one in which choice is impossible: the one in which all are unfree, since without freedom there is no choice and no morality.

    For a more detailed explanation, I can recommend Tibor Machan's 'Philosophy vis-a-vis the Free Society,' available here in PDF form.


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