Against Moralized Conceptions of Liberty

Matt Z. comments here.

I concur. I’ll add a quotation from Schmidtz and Brennan 2010:

Some theorists think a minimal set of protected negative liberties is all people need to launch a society that over generations produces explosive gains in positive liberty. Other theorists seek guarantees and do not find them in a system of mere negative liberty. Again, freedom from does not guarantee a great deal of freedom to.  I might be safe from interference, yet remain unable to do much due to lack of wealth and opportunity. Negative freedom, some would say, is freedom to be poor, to sleep on a public sidewalk, etc.

It would be a shame, though. to let this degenerate into a terminological dispute. The point of defining terms is not to settle debate about whether negative freedom leads to poverty, but to facilitate debate: not to stipulate that negative liberty by definition leads to prosperity, but to be precise enough to set the stage for answerable empirical questions. For example, where there is a lot of negative freedom, are there a lot of people sleeping on public sidewalks? If the answer is no, then we can infer (not in the way that a logician deduces but rather in the way that a scientist guardedly infers causal connections from empirical regularities) that negative freedom is valuable in positive terms. (Or, once we get this far in our analysis, we can ask well-defined questions about specific forms of negative freedom, such as freedom from trade restrictions, or from state-mandated religion.) If we can document trends, so that the debate becomes less about whether a trend is real and more about why the world sometimes departs from it, we’ve made progress. Such progress in removing barriers to understanding is what we realistically can hope for from philosophy.

Another variation on the previous paragraph:

it would be a shame to let debate about negative freedom’s real effects degenerate into a terminological dispute. Perhaps, as a matter of fact, negative freedom often leads to poverty.  How would we know?  Manipulating definitions would not tell us much. The point of defining terms is not to cut off but rather to facilitate debate: not to stipulate that negative liberty leads by definition to prosperity, but to be precise enough to make a question answerable. For example, where there are fewer obstacles to seeking employment of one’s choice (fewer migration restrictions, fewer licensing or union membership requirements), are there fewer unemployed people? If so, then we can infer (not in the way a logician deduces but rather in the way a scientist guardedly infers causal connections from empirical regularities) that negative freedom is in that respect positively liberating. We can ask well-defined questions about the consequences of specific forms of negative freedom, such as the freedom from trade restrictions or from state-mandated religion. If we can document trends, making the debate less about whether a trend is real and more about why the world sometimes departs from it, we have made progress in lowering barriers to understanding — which is what we realistically hope for from philosophy.

Does liberty make our lives better? It depends:

On a negative conception of liberty, it will be a matter of historical contingency whether a given liberty makes for better lives. Negative liberties are not guaranteed to make us better off, but neither are vitamin C or exercise, so guarantees can be beside the point….Despite the lack of guarantees, history may well reveal that respecting negative liberties has a long, successful, non-accidental track record of making for better lives. In any case, we won’t settle any debate about negative liberty’s value by conceptual analysis alone.  We need to investigate what happens to people when negative liberties are reasonably secure, and what happens when they are not.

….Even on this positive (in particular, capacity-oriented) view of freedom, though, it will be a contingent matter whether increasing freedom makes for better lives. Parents want better lives for their children, but does that mean they want their child to be free to drive the family car? Not necessarily. Even as adults, some of our wants are self-destructive, and it’s always possible that the power to satisfy our wants won’t be good for us.

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Author: Jason Brennan
  • Dan

    A couple of points about Matt’s article (I take it that this is an appropriate place to discuss it):

    The ordinary language argument against moralized conceptions of freedom seems to me to be quite strong. But if we’re doing analysis of ordinary language, it’s illegitimate to take “freedom” and “liberty” to be synonymous, given that they are used in subtly different ways. And indeed it does seem as though liberty is moralized; perhaps a law against murder restricts our freedom to murder, but it sounds wrong (to my ear at least) to say that it restricts our liberty to murder, and I think examples here can be multiplied.

    I entirely agree about the potential problem of circularity, e.g. justifying rights on the basis of freedom while building a conception of rights into the (moralized) definition of freedom. But I don’t think it follows that the view doesn’t deserve the name “libertarian”. If we ask what the polar opposite of liberty is, it’s at least plausible that the answer is: slavery. So it makes sense, at least rhetorically, to call libertarian the view that opposes slavery — the exercise of ownership rights over one person by another — in favour of its extreme opposite, self-ownership. Endorsement of self-ownership is, roughly, what the usage of term at least in political philosophy tracks, and I don’t think it’s obviously wrong to do so.

    Finally, if one prefers a flat, unmoralized notion of liberty, it becomes utterly unclear why liberty should count as something morally valuable; why, as Matt puts it, liberty is an “independent value”. What is so great about liberty as such, if liberty is understood to be (in at least one way) enhanced or increased by allowing murder or rape? Perhaps he might say that the increase in liberty is undermined by the “disvalue” of the acts newly permitted; but then it’s not liberty (again, in the unmoralized sense) that’s doing the work, as much as the value of different kinds of liberty. At any rate, it’s simply illegitimate to then go on to contrast liberty, as Matt seems to do, with oppressive control by others. At best, “libertarians” in Matt’s preferred terminology ought to be only contingently in favour of liberty, depending whether or not it correlates with other desired outcomes/values.

    • good_in_theory

      ” “libertarians” in Matt’s preferred terminology ought to be only contingently in favour of liberty, depending whether or not it correlates with other desired outcomes/values.”

      Isn’t that what many here argue – that they’re libertarian on, basically, utilitarian grounds?

      • j_m_h

        Not sure if your saying many libertarians or many of the bloggers (with or without including commenters) are justifying libertarianism on utilitarian grounds.

        My problem with that approach gets into the whole interpersonal comparison of utility and the potential for various cases where a small group is sacrificed for “the needs of the many” where it’s the many deciding on what’s needed and who’s making the sacrifice. That doesn’t fit the image of libertarianism as I understand it or how I think most libertarians understand it.

        • good_in_theory

          I meant the bloggers here.

          Much better if the few decided what’s needed and who sacrifices? I’m afraid if one wants to escape conventions, they won’t have much luck.

          • shemsky

            Better if each individual decides for themselves (and only for themselves).

          • good_in_theory

            I’ve decided you don’t have property rights in your material possessions. Cool with you?

          • shemsky

            I’ve decided that I do have property rights in my material possessions, and my associates are backing me up. Are you cool with that? We will listen to reason, if you have any to offer.

          • good_in_theory

            My associates appear to be the vast majority of the world, who accept the legitimacy of the state. Good luck at your Ruby Ridge or Waco.

          • shemsky

            The vast majority of the world also accepts various forms of absurd religious doctrine as the truth, and many of them believe that they have the right to impose their doctrine on non believers. So you’re in good company.

          • good_in_theory

            Ah, that vast majority which takes their private delusions to be true for all. Sounds like good company for you and your associates and your solipsistic account of property rights.

          • shemsky

            I said that I’d listen to reason, if you had any. But you don’t. All you have is dogma. You fit in well with the religious fundamentalists.

          • good_in_theory

            Wow, dogma.

            What does my dogma consist of in this thread?

            Rules about propriety are conventional.
            Each individual defining the rules of propriety alone doesn’t really work.

            Shall we compare with your “reason?”

            ‘Best if each person decides what everyone doesn’t own for themselves’

            Of course, I’m sure everyone will decide that the exact same things aren’t owned by others.

            Or not. In which case, those affected will have to coordinate upon some institutional format which can collectively decide what isn’t – and is – owned, and by whom. One might even call it ‘the many’ deciding who deserves what and who has to sacrifice.


          • shemsky

            You can’t rightfully decide for me what someone else owns or doesn’t own. If you decide that Jason doesn’t own his house, and I decide that Jason does own his house, you have no right to compel me to enforce your decision. But that’s exactly what states do, which is why I oppose them. That’s what “let each individual decide for themselves, and only for themselves” means. You can decide anything you want, but you can’t compel someone else to go along with your decision.

          • good_in_theory

            Well, my friends here don’t need to be compelled to agree to take Jason’s house. In fact, the idea of rendering a bit of military service now and then for the right to determine what everyone else does or doesn’t own sounds pretty good to them, since we’ve all got horses and arms and armor, and most others don’t. We think we’ll call the whole thing ‘feudalism.’

            Things may get a little messy, but as long as we analytically and temporally separate my (and my friends) private exercise of sovereign authority to enforce my opinions of propriety upon others, from the mutually beneficial exchanges entered into subsequent to my own declaration and enforcement of what I deem to be proper, it all fits together rather nicely.

          • shemsky

            If what you say is true, then we shouldn’t need compulsory tax laws, with penalties for non compliance. Everyone would just agree to pay in their “fair share” as decided by whoever has been given the authority to decide for everyone else. No one would be angry about having to pay for what someone else wants.

            What you and yours advocate is giving the collective the right to force individuals to violate their own conscience. That’s not how civilized people behave. Do you ever wonder why so many people in America seem so politically hostile to each other? I’ve just given you the answer.

          • j_m_h


            I like the sentiment and the idea but we’d really need to consider the structure under which the few are making those decisions. It seems clear to me that a small group is making those decisions for the larger group and it’s not working out well. This is occurring due to the constitutional structure of our political system.

          • good_in_theory

            But what are the alternative libertarian institutions and processes? Are they anti-democratic? If so, why/how is that an improvement?

          • j_m_h

            I don’t see that they would have to be anti-democratic. Moreover, I don’t see that our existing setup is all the democratic — seems like minority rule to me.

            Our current arrangement allows two large but minority factions to rule over a larger minority. When you look at election results — at least Presidential — we get about 55% of “the people” voting and that splits relatively evenly between the two parties. 45% not voting and our system doesn’t take them into account at all but allows a group to rule when less than 30% of the people expressed support and, lacking any other interpretation, more than 70% have not shown support.

            My thoughts are we need to make the No Vote actually mean something and count it in with the other votes — at the very least it should me “No Support for any candidate” or “Happy the the way things are now, no need for change”. That way no one gets to free ride on other people voting and Everyone is getting a say.

            To be sure, there were need to be additional changes in our institutional form to deal with what a Congress could do when some seats are vacant because no candidate could get a majority of the votes. Those details can be worked out.

      • j r

        The key to answering your question is in recognizing the difference between arguing for libertarian ideas on the basis of their instrumental value versus arguing for libertarian ideas on the basis of utilitarianism.

        • good_in_theory

          That seems to me to be the key to making distinctions without much difference at all to speak of.

  • Sean II

    It seems there are three possibilities here:

    a) The Zwolinski-Brennan position*: “If I was convinced that it really was the case that a system of private property led to the oppression of workers, I would have second thoughts about defending such a system.”

    b) The Rand-Rothbard moralistic daredevil position: “Even if I was totally convinced that a system of private property led to oppression of the workers, I would still be all for it.”

    c) The Admiral Akbar position**: “I needn’t fall into the trap of choosing between a) and b) because in the only world that actually exists the system of private property enjoys both a strong moral justification and overwhelming empirical support as the only thing that doesn’t oppress people, and this is hardly a coincidence.”

    Obviously c) is a complicated position, requiring great virtuosity to explain and defend. But while I find position b) to be offensive and irresponsible, if someone were to argue from position c) we would not immediately alienate me, nor run afoul of your main arguments.

    * – I realize the “Zwolinski-Brennan Position” sounds like an obstetric technique, but I’m sorry. That cannot be helped.

    ** Since Admiral Akbar is best know for not avoiding a trap, perhaps I have named this position poorly. I considered calling it the Wendy McElroy, because of that whole debate about counter-factuals and thought experiments awhile back. But since Akbar did recognize a trap once he was throughly caught up in one, I figured that no one would mind.

    • martinbrock

      If I was totally convinced that a system of private property led to oppression of the workers, I would be someone else.

      The three positions you describe are not mutually exclusive, because c) involves “the system of private property” that actually exists while a) involves an unspecified system of private property and b) involves two theoretical systems of private property, one espoused by Rand and the other by Rothbard. Needless to say, Rand and Rothbard did not advocate the same system, and neither of them advocated an existing system.

      c) seems less complicated than acquiescent to me.

      • Ok substitute only thing with “only observed thing”, is that better? Also, private property is not the only consideration when one usually speaks of a free market system (perhaps Sean should have used the term free market) Since it has been well argued, to my understanding, that using humans as chattel property is incompatible with a true free market.

        • Sean II

          Yes, the point really is that you could drop in any libertarian concept into my a), b), and c) there. It could be free market, negative liberty, minimal state, anarchy, etc.

          Actually, I can’t remember why the hell I mentioned “private property” in that comment at all. Obviously it should have been negative liberty, since that’s what fits with the post.

          All I can say in my defense is…it was 3:00am when I wrote that, and I was reading a bunch of libertarian chatter in lieu of sleep. I must have become confused, and typed out this otherwise on-topic response, but accidentally littered it with a slightly off-topic term.

          You realize what this means? Some other guy on some other board is now scratching his head trying to figure out why I started talking about negative liberty in the midst of a private property thread. Poor bastard.

        • martinbrock

          “Only observed thing” helps, but your substitution makes the Ackbar statement no better, because you aren’t Ackbar.

          Private property is not a single idea. Rothbard’s standards of propriety differ from Rand’s, and neither Rothbard nor Rand defended “private property as it actually exists”.

          Using human beings as chattel was consistent with private property as it actually existed in central North America in the early nineteenth century. If you want to discuss some hypothetical free market instead, that’s fine with me, but then you aren’t defending the Ackbar position.

  • martinbrock

    I dislike moralizing, because I dislike group-think generally, so “liberty makes our lives better” raises a red flag with me. What does “our lives” mean in this context? Only an individual has a meaningful life. A person’s life can be better or worse within a group, but the group’s life is not better or worse. The group’s life is not meaningful at all.

    How do you know that my life is better or worse? Do you ask me, or do you apply some “objective” criteria? If the latter, who chooses the “objective” criteria? If you choose these criteria, don’t you avoid asking me by simply asking yourself instead? If someone else chooses the criteria, don’t you ask this other person instead? How does any “objective” criteria differ from the subjective judgment of the person choosing the criteria?

    Whether or not liberty (as I use the term) is generally “good” comes down to two questions, seems to me. Good for whom? Good by what criteria? Maybe that’s only one question.

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  • I am perplexed by any formulation which says that negative liberty leads to poverty. Poverty is the natural state of mankind. There need not be any “system” of any kind to have poverty. What is needed is a system which allows people, through their efforts to escape poverty. And not all will escape because there are inherent inadequacies in some people. (sloth, addiction, stupidity, criminality, etc). How a society treats those who cannot escape poverty is certainly an area of ongoing debate, but it is quite separate from any discussion of liberty IMO.

    • “Leads to poverty” as compared to alternative systems. If you prefer, “does an inferior job of alleviating poverty,” that’s fine with me, too.

  • Don Kirk

    With Nearwood, I find the idea of negative liberty leading to poverty unintelligible. For some factual correlation, the measures of negative liberty among the 194 nations of the world closely match (.67) their rankings in per capita GDP. With the exception of hitting in baseball, it takes an extraordinarily pessimistic personal psychology to believe one out of three (.33) somehow means that negative liberty is related to impoverity.

    • I agree, but that’s the whole point. As a matter of logic, negative liberty and poverty could have turned out to be tightly positively correlated. In fact, the opposite turns out to be true, and it’s not a mere coincidence. Schmidtz and I are not disputing the economic facts you bring up. Rather, we’re saying that these facts matter as part of the moral justification for market societies. If these facts were not facts, then market societies would not be as well justified.

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