Monday, June 13, 2016
Can free people make bad choices?
Reason has just published a debate on this issue, contrasting "Virtuous Libertarianism" vs. "Libertine Libertarianism." The gist is the following. Two political scientists, William Ruger and Jason Sorens, argue that some libertarians -- they term them "libertine libertarians" -- believe that "so long as an act is consensual and respects at least one truth—the inviolability of the person's fundamental right to choose how to use his or her person and property—not only should the law not get involved, but there is also no ground for moral criticism of the act. Values are essentially subjective in more than a descriptive sense but in a normative sense as well." Ruger and Sorens further contend that this is an error, and propose instead "virtue libertarianism," which recognizes that values aren't subjective.
In the debate, economist Deirdre McCloskey concurs, and economist Steven Horwitz and Reason editor Katherine Mangu-Ward dissent.
A colleague was sufficiently impressed that he emailed this debate to me and maybe twenty or so other professors, including Ruger himself. Here's my response, which I also cc'd to Drs. McCloskey and Horwitz, both of whom I know.
I explicitly did NOT say we can’t make a moral judgment about a woman with multiple sex partners, or a couple who chooses not to stay together. I suggested that such judgments are more complicated that R&S would have it. IOW: I object to their attempt to monopolize the high ground on what constitutes a right understanding of virtue.
So I’m not at all convinced I demonstrate the reality of their sorta straw libertarian."
To which I replied:
As for Mangu-Ward's point that Ruger and Sorens are overly concerned with a particular subset of human choices, well, what would one expect? The debate will necessarily be concerned with a subset of choices, i.e. those that don't involve initiation of force or fraud.
Ruger and Sorens are, of course, right. But there's no need to invent a new category of libertarianism, Nothing in libertarianism denies that there can be objective ethical standards. Neither does libertarianism hold that the only ethical question is whether rights are violated or not, i.e. whether or not a use of force is proper or not. There are many ethical questions, questions of what behavior is right and what's wrong, that do not deal with violence or rights. Bad choices, unethical choices, do not necessarily violate rights, but certainly they remain bad, and there's no reason for libertarians to defend them; a libertarian should simply defend one's right to make bad choices.
I'll also note that free people might make bad choices that undermine a free society. They might become so self-indulgent, irresponsible, uncivil, and so devoted to tricking or otherwise taking advantage of each other that they destroy their society -- all without violating rights. There's no state solution for this. Contra progressives and many conservatives, the state cannot make people be moral. But that doesn't mean we don't know what moral behavior is. Mangu-Ward contends that "a list of virtues suited to a free society—and perhaps more importantly, our ability to identify those virtues in the wild—is historically contingent and tricky to pin down."
No, it's not. Being self-indulgent, irresponsible, uncivil, and devoted to taking advantage of others is neither historically contingent not hard to pin down.
Liberty is a necessary condition for a successful society and happy people, but not a sufficient condition, because people -- including free ones -- can make bad, immoral choices.
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