Why I am a Bleeding Heart Ideal Libertarian

I thought I would throw my 2 cents into the current discussion since my view seems to be different than those who have posted so far.

I have to first say something about how I think political philosophy should be done. On this score, I should admit, I am old-fashioned. I believe that one must first specify the ideal society (one that is completely just) and then—and only then—consider how to move from one’s non-ideal society to the ideal. I don’t think one merely finds injustices and seeks to correct them; we should do that, but cannot do it if we do not know what justice is—and that is a matter of ideal theorizing. This view seems to be somewhat unpopular these days.

My libertarian principle(s) of justice—which I admittedly have yet to fully articulate—are, I think/hope, fact-insensitive (a la G.A. Cohen). They are also the principles that would guide those in the ideal society—meaning a society wherein there is full compliance with the principles of justice (a la Rawls). They are, that is, a matter of ideal theory (in at least those 2 senses). They do not directly guide action in the real world—and I am, in fact, often unsure what to suggest should be done in the real world (I want the world to be ideal and want to encourage practices in the real world that lead to that, sometimes even if those practices might not be permitted in the ideal world). Indeed, it is a standard criticism of ideal theory that it is not action-guiding. I think the criticism is mistaken, but there is an element of truth to it. Principles of ideal theory do not provide us direct action guiding advice, but they are (or so I believe) necessary for such action-guiding advice. My principles don’t provide action-guiding advice directly, but they are a way of describing what an ideal society would be. For action-guiding advice one uses something like rules of regulation (a la G.A. Cohen), where these should be rules that are meant to bring us—in whatever society we are currently in—closest to the ideal society.

So, mine is a two level theory and I am perhaps more interested in working out the ideal theory than the non-ideal theory. By contrast, all three of Matt’s types of BHL strike me as being of non-ideal theory.

OK, why am I a BHL? My ideal theory is concerned to prevent suffering and promote human flourishing for all—and, of course, that includes the less fortunate. Suffering is to be prevented, wherever it occurs, to whomever it occurs, in whatever form it occurs. In the real world, of course, suffering is most likely to occur to the least advantaged. Hence, the non-ideal theory (which I tend to sort out a bit on this blog) is concerned with the least advantaged. Does that make me a contingent BHL or a strong BHL? I’m not sure. In the ideal theory, libertarian institutions (like markets, rights, etc., all thinly defined) are justified independently and sufficiently on the basis of suffering and flourishing, and “would still be justified even if they were not good for the poor and vulnerable.” (After all, in a society where there were no poor or vulnerable people, the institutions would still be justified—even though they didn’t help anyone poor or vulberable.) So that may mean that my ideal theory is a form of contingent BHL. On the other hand, in the non-ideal theory libertarian institutions (like specific, thickly-defined sorts of markets and rights that we have or that I think we should have given the empirical facts) “actually depend in part for their moral justification on the extent to which they serve the interests of the poor and vulnerable.” That may mean my non-ideal theory is a form of strong BHL.

Putting this all a bit differently, the social and economic facts (including the fact that there are social and economic classes, some of whom are extremely wealthy, some of whom are extremely poor, and some of whom are neither) are facts that must be taken into account when considering the way the fact-insensitive principles of the ideal theory are put to use in the non-ideal theory, which is itself meant to be action-guiding in the real world. The point is to bring us closer to the ideal world, but when doing so, we must take care not to cause suffering or harm, and so, de facto, the least-advantaged figure prominently.

  • I’m not an academic philosopher (actually I’m a truck driver with a high IQ, some college under my belt, and a lot of time to think about stuff), so pardon what  may be a naive question. But when you speak of a “fact-insensitive” theory, what sorts of facts is the theory insensitive to? For instance, what kinds of assumptions do you make about human psychology or the operation of markets? Is this something that operates in a kind of idealized Platonic universe?

    • Andrew Cohen

      Thanks for the question Rod!  
      I think “fact-insensitive” should be taken to be about empirical facts only, including facts of human psychology and facts about real markets (and, I imagine we’d have to say facts about markets given assumptions about human nature).  Importantly, though, there are non-empirical facts available for theorizing about fact-insensitive principles.  Facts of logic, for example.  And, importantly but controversially, normative facts.  
      By the way, the idea that there are fact-insensitive principles is defended in a great recent work of political philosophy by G.A. Cohen, called *Rescuing Justice and Equality.*  G.A.C. was a socialist (he died about a year and a half ago), so there is obviously alot I disagree with him about, but I also think he was one of the best political philosopher’s of our time–and there is much in *Rescuing* that is of value.

  • Christopher Morris

    “My ideal theory is concerned to prevent suffering and promote human flourishing for all—and, of course, that includes the less fortunate. Suffering is to be prevented, wherever it occurs, to whomever it occurs, in whatever form it occurs […] In the ideal theory, libertarian institutions (like markets, rights, etc., all thinly defined) are justified independently and sufficiently on the basis of suffering and flourishing, and “would still be justified even if they were not good for the poor and vulnerable.”
    I grant that one has reason to care for the suffering of others. And it is often good to help others (in ways that genuinely help them). But what does this have to do with justice? Caring about the good of others and acting to help them is often benevolent or charitable (+ a number of other virtues). But justice is the virtue that tells us what it is permissible for us or our institutions to do. We admit this when we, for instance, distinguish between harm and injury. The fact that you have harmed me — e.g, by coming in first in the fellowship context in which I was second, or by winning the affection of my objet d’amour — does not imply an injury. The state should be concerned principally with the latter. This is what worries me about the “bleeding heart” position. I disapprove of the uncaring, but I don’t see how caring appears in the foundations of justice or the justification of states or law. 

  • Andrew Cohen

    I think there are 2 possibilities here:
    1. I should have spoken of a concern to prevent the (unjust) infliction of any suffering rather than a concern to prevent any suffering.
    2. We disagree about the conceptual nature of justice.

    Starting with #2: I take justice to be a matter of everyone getting his or her due.  If that necessarily occurs when no one (individual or institution) does anything impermissible, then the extensions of our definitions coincide.  I am, in fact, inclined to think that is the case, so that I have to go with #1.  
    I should note that I have a hard time imagining the worrisome forms of suffering (the suffering of innocents) being anyone’s due, which means the change in #1 wouldn’t be substantive (no one in an ideally just society would do anything impermissible, so no one would  inflict undue suffering–and there would be no due suffering–so no one would suffer).  That is ok, I think.  What say you?

    It strikes me that one issue here may be that we would need to be clearer about “impermissible.” To put the point simply: I tend to treat  “immoral” and “unjust” the same.  Hence, if I act in an immoral way–even if in a way that should not be illegal–and in the process, leave you without your due, there is an injustice.  I tend to think much suffering is caused in such ways.

    • Christopher Morris

      On the right track!! Keep going.

      Justice has to do with giving to others what they are due. But “undue suffering” may be no fault of others; things happen that are not “due to one”. Imagine that someone steals the heart of every woman I fall for, or that every invention of mine (or philosophical thought) is anticipated by another. I suffer, and my friends bemoan my “undue” suffering and try to cheer me up (“what back luck!”). The world will always have lots of suffering, and much of it may not be unjust or attributable to the impermissible acts of others. The question is not the one you pose at the very end of your note (“if I act in an immoral act…”); rather it is whether there could be lots of suffering even if we all act justly (obviously there could be). I doubt you will disagree. 

      The point sounds dull and pedantic. But it is easy to slip into thinking, for instance, that Mill’s harm principle is sensible or a reasonable one. But it isn’t! Harm is not the concern of justice; injury is (with some exceptions, e.g., parents have duties to protect their children from harms). Mill could easily move away from his classical liberalism because his consequentialism left no room for justice as an independent virtue; certainly his 20th c. followers dashed to the left. Bleeding Heart Libertarians should share the concern of decent people everywhere with much of the suffering in the world and should welcome the end of mass famines or of malaria, but they should not confuse these decent attitudes (and associated virtues) with what is owed to others. 

      • Andrew Cohen

        Chris-This helps.  I’m not sure why you think the harm principle is problematic though–at least if its understood as Feinberg understands it (which still strikes me as the best way to take it), but it seems that you don’t take it that way (where harm is a wrongful setback of interests).  I’m not suggesting Mill’s own view is right–I think his consequentialism can be made to fit with the harm principle, but I think he himself left them in too much tension (and ultimately, I’d just reject the consequentialism).

  • Anonymous


    “… to prevent suffering and promote human flourishing for all—and, of course, that includes the less fortunate.” 
    What about other animals besides humans? Where are they in the chain of importance and consideration? Some creatures from the animal kingdom and not some others? Which? Why? Just curious as to your thinking on this…

  • Andrew Cohen

    Louie-Sorry I didn’t get to this quicker.  I think non-human animal suffering matters morally.  I’ve never been sure what it should mean for law.  That is part of why I wrote “prevent suffering” rather than “prevent human suffering.”  I think all suffering is bad–by definition.  I similarly think intentionally causing suffering is wrong, no matter in what sort of creature the suffering occurs.  I also think, though, that the suffering of less rational animals matters less than the suffering of more rational animals.  Does the flourishing of rational animals matter more than the suffering of non-rational or less rational animals?  That is a question I can’t answer yet.

    • Anonymous

      My question was partly influenced and out of left field, so to speak, by a book (Straw Dogs: Thoughts On Humans and Other Animals) by John Gray that I just read. From the Wikipedia book description and an editorial review:

      “…Western tradition has been based on arrogant and erroneous beliefs about human beings and their place in the world. Philosophies such as liberalism and Marxism think of humankind as a species whose destiny is to transcend natural limits and conquer the Earth. John Gray argues that this belief in human difference is a dangerous illusion and explores how the world and human life look once humanism has been finally abandoned.” 
      “Gray recommends a devaluation of progress, mastery, and immortality, and a return to contemplation and acceptance: Other animals do not need a purpose in life. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?”

      But I don’t know either. Though I tend to agree with what you said in response.

      However… I’m not a recreational hunter, for instance, but I wear leather, eat meat and enjoy it. I’m also a pest control operator, an exterminator by trade–paid to either kill or otherwise catch/re-locate or “exclude” “vermin.” Yet I support laws to protect wildlife and against cruelty to animals, providing they don’t “go too far.” Then, I have no issue eliminating some less rational creatures that seem to have no other purpose but to spread disease (mosquitoes, for instance). But then, plainly, like many people, my moral justification is strongest for exterminating less rational creatures that are vectors for disease–their suffering matters less and to stop them from flourishing is ultimately a good thing. But the distinction should be based on science. Then again, I tend to think that to exalt the virtues of logic, reason and rationality above all else is yet another absolutist, authoritarian stance…   

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