Liberty, Libertarianism

Libertarianism and the Varieties of Virtue

In Reason, William Ruger and Jason Sorens seek to offer an alternative to the sort of thick libertarianism to which many of those associated with the Center for a Stateless Society are committed. They seek to defend what they call “virtue libertarianism.” Sometimes, they seem to be concerned with virtues in the narrow sense of desirable habits of character; at other points, they seem to have in mind moral excellence, and a kind of moral concern that includes personal flourishing as well as interpersonal obligation, more generally.

Ruger and Sorens offer virtue libertarianism as an alternative both to an ultra-thin (brutalist?) libertarianism that treats all non-aggressive conduct as morally indifferent or “a thick variant that takes its cues from more socially (and politically correct) left-wing moral dogma.” In effect, as Sheldon Richman observes, they defend a thick libertarianism on the right.

Ruger, Sorens, and other proponents of “virtue libertarianism” aren’t attacking a straw target. There really are people who think, or talk as if they think, that, as long as the non-aggression principle isn’t violated by someone’s conduct, there’s no basis for any sort of moral objection that conduct. That view is silly on its face. Any plausible account of rights and duties with respect to aggression will be rooted in a rich moral soil. And from that soil will grow a variety of moral responsibilities, both with respect to one’s own flourishing and with respect to that of others. So far so good.

And, more than that, I think we have every reason to agree with Sorens and Ruger that beneficence and generosity matter. These character traits are certainly ones I believe that we ought to embrace and encourage and ones that we ought to exercise in and through the voluntary associations and institutions in which we participate. The same is true of a concern with effective emotional self-management.

Ruger and Sorens are right, too, that freedom is a prerequisite to virtue: only genuinely autonomous moral agents can truly be morally responsible in the way that virtue requires, and I believe they’re correct that monomaniacal focus on particular goods can compromise our autonomy and lead us to treat ourselves and others badly. Finally, they seem to me to be right that cultural institutions might reasonably promote habits that will help people to realize well being using various forms of non-violent social influence.

But Ruger and Sorens don’t simply want to reject an anemic account of morality. They want to do more—to reject, in the name of virtue, a variety of specific moral convictions. They are evidently skeptical, for instance, about moral criticisms of workplace hierarchy, and they appear to want to distance themselves from moral defenses of libertarian porn star and Duke University student “Belle Knox” and from those who object on moral grounds to slut-shaming.

Of course Ruger, Sorens, and others can legitimately challenge the substantive arguments people might make with regard to these and other matters. The devil, here as elsewhere, is in the details. But they will need to do more than simply rejecting opposing views—as I do on these two issues—as embracing “libertinism.” My view, at any rate, isn’t that anything goes. It is that workplace hierarchies are objectionable because they treat workers unfairly, disregard their dignity, and, as it happens, foster inefficiency. It is that Knox is developing and experiencing and sharing particular sorts of flourishing and offering audiences particular sorts of imaginative pleasure (not something necessarily different in kind from what other performers do) without, in principle, injuring anyone. It is that slut-shaming attempts to apply social pressure unreasonably—to discourage behavior in which people might engage for a variety of good reasons and which might either be a means to or a constitutive element of their flourishing.

I certainly believe (and have argued at length) that “[l]ife-long committed marriage” is an ideal serious romantic partners have reason to realize whether or not they are parents. But it doesn’t follow that everyone has reason to want to be seriously romantic involved with someone else, much less that someone who does prevents her- or himself from achieving this goal by engaging in the sexual practices to which Ruger and Sorens object.

No doubt we should object when people “idle away their time and talents in frivolous pursuits” if in so doing they are purposefully or instrumentally attacking their own well being or that of others, neglecting their responsibilities to others, or disregarding their commitments to themselves. But where this is not the case, where people are simply acting out priorities that we happen not to share, we have, I think, no basis for judgment. This is not because all options are equally good, but because the range of good options seems to me more likely to include the possibility of a concern with the frivolous than it does to Ruger and Sorens.

I should note that I am doubtful that, as a general matter, “our economic and intellectual elites still largely practice the sober virtues of a high-capitalist civilization but have lost the confidence or courage to expect those virtues of the whole society.” I am confident that not only political elites (who respond, of course, to different incentives) but also cultural elites (who do require the support of the marketplace) do not. Narratives of hard living in and around corporate C-suites and the highly publicized antics of the wealthy prompt me to question the commitment of “economic elites” to Ruger and Sorens’s “sober virtues.” And anyone who knows much about the biographies of writers and academics, including highly influential ones, will raise similar questions about “intellectual elites.”

Obviously, I may be mistaken about any of these factual or normative points. But, if so, it’s not because I think virtue is unimportant or shouldn’t be a significant concern, but because my conception of virtue isn’t identical with that of Ruger and Sorens. The kind of thick libertarianism to which I am sympathetic is certainly concerned with moral excellence well beyond non-aggression. I have attempted to root my approach to libertarianism in a complex and, as Jason Brennan repeatedly reminds me, controversial moral theory—the New Classical Natural Law Theory, a variant of Thomist ethics, and thus in the Aristotelian tradition, with Kantian undertones. Roderick Long has offered a different sort of Aristotelian approach, one to which the category of virtue is central. Perhaps we are captives of left-wing dogma, or perhaps we really can defend the particular, substantive moral visions we embrace successfully against the sorts of challenges Sorens and Ruger seek to articulate. I certainly believe that ours is a full-orbed moral vision, not some sort of implausible moral minimalism.

I have sometimes argued for shunning and public shaming as means of maintaining social order non-violently. But I am concerned on several fronts by the invocation of these sorts of non-violent social pressure by Ruger and Sorens. (i) I favor defensive shunning—boycotting dishonest vendors to avoid being cheated, for instance. Boycotting as a short-term strategy to encourage an end to the mistreatment of others can make sense, too. But what I wouldn’t favor under any circumstances is boycotting as an expression of moralism, of the idea that somehow associating with bad people is itself bad, a source of impurity. (ii) I am skeptical about the kind of paternalistic shunning Sorens and Ruger seem to favor both because it seems likely in many cases to involve an unreasonable pretense of knowledge on the part of the shunner—who may simply not be sufficiently aware of the circumstances of the person to whose behavior she or he objects—and because, more broadly, it may sometimes stifle expressions of human diversity that seems likely to foster social flourishing. Ruger and Sorens reject a “sour and imperious judgmentalism,” but it will be hard for those who embrace their program to avoid engaging precisely in that. Indeed, I think a case can be made for the view that it is precisely an expression of virtue—of respect for others and of celebration of the richness of the human community—to avoid a number of the sorts of judgments Ruger and Sorens might be inclined to commend. (iii) Even where we can be confident that people are making bad choices, I am deeply skeptical of the idea that shunning or otherwise rejecting them on an individual basis is likely to be redemptive—it seems likely instead to be deeply wounding and alienating—or that it will prove, in many cases, consistent with virtue, with the demands of loyalty and compassion.

Thaddeus Russell’s superb Renegade History of the United States tells a story of cultural and institutional change to which ongoing tension between the censorious and the free-spirited—including the frivolous, the drunkards, the sexually experimental—is essential. Russell does not suggest that everyone should be a renegade. But he does maintain—plausibly, on my view—that human freedom and well being are persistently expanded when those who reject established norms and sober virtues (and not only the cultural avant garde) press their claims against what they experience as the stultifying demands of the majority. Russell points, effectively, to an ecology of positive social change in which the task of pushing the envelope plays an inescapably important role. There’s certainly a role in Russell’s ecology for the kind of virtue-promotion Ruger and Sorens envision. But unqualified general embrace of the kind of stance they favor might, it seems to me, undermine the ability of that ecology effectively to yield ongoing social innovation.

We ought to be concerned with other people’s well being, richly conceived, and our own, rather than simply avoiding aggression or even with adhering to interpersonal duty. But it doesn’t follow that we should exhibit and promote just the virtues Sorens and Ruger favor, or that we should do so in the way they believe we should.

[Cross-posted at C4SS]

  • Although I don’t think anyone in the Reason discussion or here has brought it up, I think the issue of same-sex marriage, or “marriage equality” more broadly, has some light to shed on these issues. Despite it being relatively early days, from my perspective the way this issue has played out in the US after the Supreme Court decision has been pretty benign overall. What if anything might we learn from this?

    First, I think it’s fair to say there didn’t seem to be a lot of public support for an approach in which government withdraws itself from its traditional involvement in marriage, leaving it as a purely private contract between participants. There also didn’t seem to be majority support for an “archipelago” approach in which different jurisdictions within the US would be allowed to adopt very different legal standards on marriage (or, for that matter, no standards at all). Instead there seems to be a rough consensus in the US that marriage is a “good thing” that’s worthy of being promoted by society in general and by government in particular, including having government exercise coercive force as needed to compel public recognition of the marriage relationship by others, along with general acceptance of having a single national standard for government-endorsed and -enforced marriage. So from this point of view I think the marriage equality controversy got resolved in the US in a way that is inconsistent with “thin libertarianism”, partially consistent with “virtue libertarianism” (the “marriage is a good thing worth promoting” part), and mainly consistent with broad public acceptance of the role of government, including the national government, in reflecting and enforcing societal consensus around various aspects of personal relationships.

    However… it’s also worth noting that in rejecting the “marriage vs. civil union” approach the Supreme Court, various lower courts, and voters in states like Maryland also to my mind rejected the idea that some forms of marriage-like relationships should be implicitly endorsed as more “virtuous” than others–“real marriages” as opposed to “pseudo-marriages”. Also, attempts to establish “covenant marriage” as a more restrictive (and presumably more “virtuous”) alternative to “regular” marriage have proved relatively unpopular in the US. So although people in the US can be generally said to have endorsed the idea of promoting marriage as a “good thing” via government, I think they also seem generally inclined to the libertarian-friendly position that government shouldn’t make distinctions in marriage relationships beyond that.

    • Apologies for following up my own comment, but anyway: After writing this I happened to check out the Freedom to Marry web site. It now hosts a very thorough and enlightening set of documents describing in detail how they went about working on their own and with partner organizations to broaden public support for same-sex marriage and win legislative, referenda, and legal victories. In my opinion it is must reading for anyone interested in pursuing large-scale political and social change, including any libertarians so inclined.

      One part that’s particularly relevant to this discussion is about how marriage equality supporters needed to change their core message, captured in this quote: “In perhaps our biggest ‘A ha!’ moment, we learned that many voters thought that gay couples wanted to marry to gain rights and benefits (_which is actually what we’d been telling them_) – but that voters saw this as a very different motivation from why they themselves would get married, i.e. for love and commitment.” [emphasis added] As a result they moved to a messaging strategy that promoted key virtues, including loving and committing to another person and raising a family with them, and then highlighted that same-sex couples were being prevented from exercising those virtues in the same manner as opposite-sex couples. This proved to be a much more successful way to convert people who were part of the broad middle (neither strong supporters or strong opponents).

      My conclusion: I am actually sympathetic to JR’s argument that “virtue talk” is not necessary to libertarianism as a political philosophy. However I suspect that it _is_ necessary to libertarianism as a political program, at least if libertarians want to go beyond traditional libertarian/conservative fusionist issues (e.g., lowering marginal tax rates, loosening regulations on corporations) and address issues that more directly affect less favored members of society. As one example, I think the case for eliminating or reducing occupational licensing requirements is much more compelling when couched in terms of virtues (being a productive member of society, supporting one’s family) and how such requirements thwart the exercise of such virtues, than when discussed as a simple matter of liberty and “getting the government off our backs”.

      • Lacunaria

        Great analysis and insights, Frank! I agree that libertarianism must be argued in the context of at least a slightly larger moral system. And you make a good case that even further moral virtue framing is effective in convincing people.

        Fascinating that it was an explicit strategic decision to switch from arguing for equal positive rights and benefits to arguing that prohibiting gay marriage deprives people of the love and commitment of marriage. It’s interesting and encouraging that the more libertarian-ish framing won.

        But despite the widespread perception that legal marriage is important for love and commitment, I’m not sure that is strictly true, which makes me wonder whether the public really understood the dilemma.

        Nevertheless, you may still be right that, even if they did understand it, the public would still reject government withdrawal from marriage since it is easier to extend subsidies than reduce them.

        But I do see the parallel to framing occupational licensing, since the opposition could argue that you can be productive and support one’s family via some other means than a licensed occupation (plus save people from a bad hair-braiding!), just as gay marriage opposition would argue that love and commitment can occur via means other than legal marriage.

  • Jerome Bigge

    The issue of “gay marriage” and all the other issues revolves around the fact that people get certain legal “benefits” as “married” as opposed to not being legally married. If the “benefits” were the same regardless of whether or not their relationship had been “blessed” by the State, then the issue would not arise. It is the increasing involvement in our lives by “government” (local, state, federal) that really is the issue here. If these three classes of government are limited to protection against force, fraud, or reckless endangerment, then the problem disappears.

    • j_m_h

      I wonder if it is that simple though. Take government out of marriage. What rights do the married people enjoy from a social standpoint? Do people in similar status, married, enjoy the same social experience regardless of it being a traditional marriage or some other marriage?

      For instance, government is not in the picture regarding marriage at all. One of the couple is now on his/her death bed. Does the partner get special “family” visiting rights if it’s a gay marriage? It that then is driven purely be local custom or the hospital owner’s personal views on marriage do we live in a society that is really a rule of law setting where people in similar situations are expect to enjoy similar treatment?

      I agree that we don’t need all the other bits and special social-engineering aspects but we’re still stuck with the problem of having well defined rights that will then be uniformly enforced.

      • Jerome Bigge

        This is the same problem we have now with people deciding who they will do business with and who they won’t do business with. Which brings up the question of whether or not civil rights can exist in a libertarian society. Can the “State” force people to do things that they would not do if the law didn’t exist. Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 said that civil rights were a violation of people’s “freedom of choice”. Which was actually true, although most people didn’t agree with him.

        • Lacunaria

          It’s a little different from public accommodation since the hospital is already holding you. You might have even been brought there unconscious. So, it shouldn’t be entirely up to them to decide who can visit you.

          i.e. deciding who can visit you should be an individual right, assuming there isn’t some health or practical reason the hospital is keeping people out.

          But I do agree that civil rights should only apply against government and not interfere with voluntary associations.

        • TracyW

          Can the “State” force people to do things that they would not do if the law didn’t exist.

          A has several children and writes a will leaving all his goods to them. Some years later A dies, of natural causes, and a neighbour, B, is the first to find A’s body. May B claim A’s house? May A’s bank keep the money for themselves? Or can the State force people to follow the terms of A’s will?

      • Lacunaria

        Yes, deciding who can visit you in the hospital should be an individual right rather than one solely tied to marriage, though marriage can include a default.

        In fact, if I recall correctly, it has been an individual right through power of attorney, though there were some cases where gays had to sue to have their POA properly recognized by hospitals, though, sadly, their loved ones died in the meantime.

  • JR

    This debate is not new. When Rothbard criticized Meyers’ fusionism, which was an early cry for a sort of virtue libertarianism, Rothbard rightly pointed out that what Meyer’s called for did not require what Meyer’s was asking for. Libertarianism was not antithetical to the traditional values to what Meyer’s was defending.

    That’s why I find this debate to be a totally unnecessary one and one that shows how far off we have come from the “good old fashion” kind of libertarianism that Rothbard defended for a new kind that wants to be cool. I for one agree in principle with a lot of what Ruger and Sorens have to say. However this debate of whether libertarianism should advocate for virtue and what kind falls outside of libertarianism and should not be seen as an essential part of libertarianism qua libertarianism. In this regard I defend wholeheartedly defend a thin libertarianism not the radical kind mentioned. This debate between “bleeding hearts” and thin types only highlights the need for this thin type.

    That doesnt mean that libertarian cant debate these issues or even defend them vigorously but that in the end this is a non libertarian debate. Libertarianism doesnt purport to be a all encompassing moral philosophy like Objectivism.

    If a racist bigot wants to deprive a customer of service because of their race, gender/orientation, religion, then libertarianism doesnt speak to that. That doesnt mean that that person cant be condemned on moral grounds outside of libertarianism. I can do so on religious or other ethical systems.

    Similarly a libertarian can morally condemn the college student for selling her body for college money but I do so not on libertarian grounds but on other moral grounds outside of libertarianism. The problem with both Ruger/Sorens and bleeding heart liberal libertarians is that each side believes they need to subsume their ethical/virtues into libertarianism.

    Lord Acton’s said that freedom is the highest “political end”. From there what we do and how we judge those on how they use their freedoms can and must be evaluated but there is nothing that libertarianism has to offer. Not because its deficient. It’s like asking what does biology have to say about the aesthetics of a Rembrandt.

    So I guess I have no qualms with what each side has to say per se for the most part its just that this is and should be a discussion that takes place by libertarians but with the recognition that this is not a libertarian debate just because libertarians are debating it.

    • Lacunaria

      I basically agree with you, but notably, they are defining “thin” libertarianism as (possibly brutal!) “moral indifference” to non-aggressive conduct, which is significantly different from our definition that libertarianism is simply not applicable outside of aggressive conduct.

      The problem is that, in some fringe cases, our politics is not entirely moral by itself. i.e. it depends upon some further degree of morality from people.

      e.g. most people would rob a rich person of $100 if it would save the life of someone else who didn’t deserve to die, and they would believe that they have done good.

      Lefty worldviews especially see it as highly likely that the rich will let the innocent poor die on a greedy whim.

      Of course, in practice, this is not the case, since people are naturally charitable when they can be and when they feel that charity is their responsibility. And furthermore, all of the people who would vote to take some money from everyone to give to the poor, should likewise be willing to voluntarily give some of their own money to help the poor.

      My point is that, to some extent, we necessarily must advocate specific other morals outside of political libertarianism in order to justify libertarianism as part of an integrated moral system.

      • Theresa Klein

        As a tangent, I agree that people are naturally charitable when they can be. Only recently have I gotten economically comfortable enough to experience this. I was way stingier as a poor student and I imagine that someone who has always been poor, or always been rich might not relate. If you’ve always been rich, you can’t understand the mindset of someone who is poor and doesn’t want to give because they are struggling to make ends meet. If you’ve always been poor, you think everyone is naturally stingy and has to be coerced into giving. Problem is that the people the left thinks need to be forced to give are always someone else, always someone richer than you. But the really rich people are already donating enormous amounts to charity.

    • martinbrock

      Rothbard was not thin enough. He was always “deducing” ethical norms that libertarians must respect, and this impulse to thicken his message was and still is a problem for his legacy. If you give birth to a child and decide to let it starve to death, I may not interfere? Entering your house without your consent to interfere is unjust, but if you’ve picked an apple from my tree without my consent, all bets are off? These proscriptions are not libertarian, but they are offensive to common humanity. If you want your neighbors to respect your exclusive use of a house, you must respect proprieties that they want respected. If you can find a voluntary community ruling out this interference, good luck to you. I wouldn’t want to live there. There is no liberty outside of an interdependent community. Crusoe alone on his island has no liberty and needs none.

    • Theresa Klein

      I guess I actually quite agree with you, although I have considered myself a “thick” libertarian. I suppose though, that it must be said that being a “thin” libertarian doesn’t commit one to being neutral on moral/ethical principles.

      To me, the point of “thick” libertarianism is to get beyond getting government and force out our lives, and try to develop social norms that would non-violently govern what sort of society we want to live in. We acknowedge that social coercion exists and that people can be treated unjustly just because of the prejudices of the society they live in, and that this is a problem that deserves addressing. Thick libertarianism largely is aimed at devising alternatives to coercive institutions such as anti-discrimination statues. Those alternatives mostly try to harness social coercion, social norms, to fight racism and prejudice. But there is an internal contradiction, which I am well aware of that in a way those mechanisms are using fire to fight fire – we’re trying to socially ostracise bigots and racists more in order to make society ostracize blacks and gays less. It’s not at all clear if the best way of producing a society that is socially just – as in one in which people are treated fairly even in their non-force-employing conduct – entails treating bigots and racists as pariahs. Worse, it’s not clear if the sort of behavior necessary to enforce social norms against racism is at all consistent with the “thick” libertarianism with respect to political identity and speech rights.
      In other words, think libertarianism contains an internal contradiction in that it requires one to tolerate racist speech, but also requires one to enforce a strict social norm against racism, which means not tolerating racist speech.

      I’m not sure this contradiction is irresolvable, but it definitely lends weight to your argument that libertarianism should be strictly limited to the realm of politics and the use of force.

  • Jennifer Baker

    Thanks for this helpful post, Gary. Really enjoyed it. If I am not just repeating what you and McCloskey and others here are suggesting: it seems like what Sorens and Ruger are seeking is a useful moral theory, one which allows them to justify their own moral conclusions while at the same time justifying others being free to make their own choices. They won’t get this from their listing Locke and down on. Theoretical virtue ethics, however, is on offer.

  • murali284

    I wonder if the existence of such intractable disputes about what virtue and a good life consist in can itself be a good argument for a thin libertarianism. Thin libertarianism as the subject of an overlapping consensus, so to speak. Thick libertarianism (of one sort or the other) requires people to commit to things which (as Rawls put it) they cannot make good on to disagreeing others.

  • Ramananda M Acharya

    There is only one sin. That is weakness. When I was a boy I read Milton’s Paradise Lost. The only good man I had any respect for was Satan. The only saint is that soul that never weakens, faces everything, and determines to die game. Stand up and die game! Do not add one lunacy to another. Do not add your weakness to the evil that is going to come. That is all I have to say to the world. Be strong!

  • Then do you require the strength for such departure or not? The departure is inevitable even for the un-divine human beings If the blind love is accumulated day by day, just imagine that day When one has to depart from all his blind attractions in this world!

  • martinbrock

    In my way of thinking, “virtue libertarianism” is a category error. Libertarianism is a political theory, not an ethical theory. We advocate social organization without, or with minimal, coercion. The point of this organization is not to impose an ethical system on everyone everywhere. The point is not to impose an ethical system on everyone everywhere, to enable individuals to choose a conception of the good for themselves by associating, as exclusively as necessary, with other individuals sharing their preference.

    Of course, people want virtue, but they don’t agree on what constitutes a virtue. If you will not associate with people who inject heroin but will associate with people who smoke pot, I’m in no position to judge these priorities for you. If you will worship in the same sanctuary with your homosexual neighbor but won’t bake his wedding cake, I’m in no position to judge you either, and if you offend your neighbor this way, I can only advise him to choose other friends. You then must choose between his friendship and your priorities.

    Libertarianism is about maximizing choice, not about which choices we should make, but it’s not libertine for this reason. Very few stable communities, bound together only by free association, will be libertine in the sense of Ruger and Sorens, but we don’t need the two of them deciding for everyone how long a marriage with children should last or which pursuits are frivolous.

    • murali284

      This is exactly right.

    • Jameson Graber

      Part of what matters here is that libertarianism is more than just a theory, it’s a movement. And as a movement, it’s not enough just to have political theory. One also has to have an appropriately broad appeal on a social level. If you look at media like Reason Magazine, they’re talking about a lot more than just politics. It matters what they say about other subjects.

    • Christopher Ritchie

      Just as an aside here; You realize that what you stated as a ‘political theory’ is in fact an ethical theory. A rather totalizing one at that; The entire Libertarian conception of Rights, non-aggression, all that, requires acceptance of a particular ethical frame-work. There are edge cases that cause that to break down, but one must point out that a normative ethical stance among quite a few places is “It is an ethical requirement to stop some-one from hurting themselves, despite what they want”. You cannot escape ethical implications of politics. There is no ‘amoral’ politics.

      • martinbrock

        A distinction between “political” and “ethical” theories is a matter of semantics rather than a matter of fact. Some people say that everything subject to laws of nature is “natural”, but the distinction between “artificial” and “natural” is not meaningless for this reason. A distinction between products of man and products not of man is useful, and we label this distinction “artificial vs. natural” even though products of man are “natural” in another sense.

        Similarly, you can say that non-aggression, as a limit on coercive force, is an ethical principle, but I rather say that it is a political constraint on ethical systems permitting the greatest variety of ethical systems peacefully to coexist.

        Stopping someone from hurting himself, despite what he wants, may be an ethical obligation in my way of thinking without justifying a political institution obliging everyone everywhere to stop people from hurting themselves. One community may permit, even require, its members to intervene in a suicide attempt, regardless of the circumstances, while another community forbids members to intervene in some or all suicides. Libertarianism permits both communities, and both conceptions of the good, to coexist.

  • Jameson Graber

    Every negative response to Ruger and Sorens I’ve read proves, in my view, that what they’re saying is pretty important. I note that all of these negative responses purport to find their argument to be a sort of a straw man, and yet they all go on to list the many ways in which they are, in fact, libertines.

    I’m sorry, but I guess I’m just a “right wing” kind of libertarian. Not in the since that I would ban anything that’s being talked about here, but just in the sense that, yes, I think porn is bad, yes, I think greed is bad, yes, I think drugs are bad. And frankly, I absolutely look down on anyone who tries to defend these things. You seem to feel very much sure of yourselves intellectually, but you’re defending immorality, plain and simple.


      I think we are defending the right to moral agency which, by definition, includes the right to be “immoral” if this harms only oneself.

      • Jameson Graber

        But that’s only if you think of “rights” exclusively in the political sense.


          Don’t follow. In what sense is the right to moral agency a “political” right?

          • Jameson Graber

            Saying you have the right to moral agency is really saying you have the right not to be coerced by others. That is purely political.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Not if this right has a firm ethical foundation, which I believe it does. Then the right of autonomy is a matter of justice. Nozick makes a strong case for this in Part I of ASU, and I elaborate on and defend his reasoning in Chapter 1 of my Nozick’s Libertarian Project.

          • Jameson Graber

            The ethical foundation is irrelevant. By “political right” I simply mean a right you have before other people. By contrast, a moral right is something that is morally right to do. Saying you have a political right to do what is morally wrong is perfectly consistent, since it could be that others don’t have the right to stop you. But saying you have a moral right to do something morally wrong is just a contradiction.

            What’s at issue in this discussion about virtue libertarianism as a movement can attract people who have a relatively stringent view of moral rights, as opposed to, e.g., Gary Chartier and Steve Horwitz.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well, you’re welcome to your own terminology, although I believe it is idiosyncratic. I think it is perfectly coherent and unproblematic to say that competent adults have (for example) the moral right to take illegal drugs, while at the same time holding that at least for some people in some circumstances it is self-destructive and therefore morally wrong for them to do so.

            Since you say in your earlier comment that you would not ban these “immoral” actions, you seem merely to be expressing the view that it would be politically astute to condemn them without legislating them away. Again, you’re welcome to your opinion, but I don’t share it. I don’t think taking on the role of moral scold is the path to electoral success. Huge numbers of people like porn, drugs, and even rock ‘n roll. I suspect they will also not welcome lectures on the evils of greed.

          • Jameson Graber

            “Again, you’re welcome to your opinion, but I don’t share it.” No, and lots of libertarians don’t. So I don’t think “virtue libertarianism” is attacking a straw man. I think it’s attacking quite a lot of, perhaps most, libertarians. At least if I’m reading it correctly. Even if I’m not reading Ruger and Sorens correctly, I’ll just be the first to say I have a different opinion on these moral issues.

            I’m not sure if Ruger and Sorens honestly believe they would be doing libertarianism any pragmatic favors by proposing virtue libertarianism as an option. The one favor I think they could do is to simply allow social conservatives within the gates, so to speak. That’s relevant this election cycle, where pretty much all social conservatives feel like outcasts (at least as far as the presidential election is concerned). But to me the more important point to me is simply getting closer to the truth.

            I think most libertarians tell an extremely naive tale about how civilization magically holds together through the virtues of freedom. Every free society that has ever existed has done so by inculcating certain core values in its citizens. That includes the US, as Alexis de Tocqueville documented well. Now, a benefit of a free society is that it can tolerate quite a lot of vice, and that’s healthy. But if those vices start to erode the fundamental structures that have held society together, there needs to be pushback in some form. The temperance movement, for example, happened for a reason. It would be better, in my view, if such movements were not political, but I don’t think we can simply ignore the damage done by widespread vice.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I agree with much of your third para, and simply note that an open borders policy at least has the potential to erode a society’s “core values.” Beyond that, I believe that our houses of worship, living rooms, and civic organizations are a far more effective venue for such conversations than the political arena.

    • Gabriel Axinte

      I think porn is bad, yes, I think greed is bad, yes, I think drugs are bad
      And your justification for the badness of these things is …

    • Gabriel Axinte

      but you’re defending immorality, plain and simple.
      According to whom?

  • 年中快乐!

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    I often run into the discussion of libertarianism where I am accused of being amoral or a social Darwinist. But I try to explain that every thing I think is based upon moral reasoning.

    I am against making people obey arbitrary acts of the majority because it is immoral, I am against taking people’s property by vote of the majority because it is immoral, I am against forcing people and nations into popular wars because it is immoral. If this movement can spread a little light on libertarian virtues then It is a good thing.