Toleration, Libertarianism

Virtue and the Limits of Knowledge

I’m glad we are having this discussion about virtue and libertarianism. In general outline, I’m fine with the general thesis Sorens and Ruger propound that virtue and liberty are compatible and synergistic. But I don’t see how they can claim to know that the activities they say are incompatible with virtue or living a good life are in fact that.

Since Sorens and Ruger say that libertarians have the “unfortunate reputation of focusing on drugs and sex”[1]— thank goodness, rock and roll wasn’t on the list—let’s focus on those activities.

Sorens and Ruger make the following claims:

  1. “As a rule, acting in porn trades one’s dignity for money”
  2. “Purely recreational or commercial sex skews the important pair-bonding, psychological functions of sex…”

So I have a simple question: how do they know this? Can they provide good evidence?[2] What concerns me is the one example they give regarding claims 1 and 2—porn star Belle Knox—does nothing to support those claims. At one point in what we hope is a long life, she did pornography (as I understand it, rape video fantasies) to make her way through college. Did this trade her dignity for money? Where’s the reliable evidence? In response to Steve Horwitz, they concede that “there might be circumstances that justify her decision” (my emphasis). But what we need here are reliable probability judgments about what’s the rule here (about porn, sex work, and dignity) and what’s the exception to the rule. More specifically, we would need to know (a) whether someone like Belle Knox who does porn for a short period of time for financial reasons will look back and correctly judge that her dignity was traded away and (b) that those who do porn or are sex workers for significant periods of time will make the same kind of judgment. It is beyond me how Sorens and Ruger could have the very particularized evidence for (a). (B) may be true, but again, we need evidence.

I turn now to drug use, I topic I think I know something about, but I will let others judge my work[3] and the work of those who influenced me. (See in particular, Jacob Sullum’s excellent book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use (Tarcher-Perigree, 2004)

Forgot about marijuana, that’s a soft and easy case. Let’s take heroin 🙂 (Sorry, couldn’t resist the joke. I do it every year in Current Moral Problems.) Is using heroin moderately (or perhaps even being an addict when it’s legal, safe, and cheap[4]) in general at odds with being virtuous? If you are sure, check the evidence (or as Ayn Rand said often, check your premises) on moderate heroin use and heroin addicts by looking at Sullum’s book and my article on mandatory drug testing. Look at Edward Brecher’s Licit and Illicit Drugs (Little and Brown, 1973) about eminent heroin addicts. Or look at John Kaplan’s The Hardest Drug (University of Chicago, 1983) And Norman Zinberg’s Drugs, Set, and Setting (Yale University Press, 1986). My point here is that Soren and Ruger seem to me to violate the epistemic virtue of humility. There are clearly two excesses here: being too judgmental (think of Ayn Rand “judge and be prepared to be judged”) and refusing to judge others (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”)[5] My concern is that even though Sorens and Ruger are correct to criticize libertarians that are libertines, they seem too judgmental.

[1] By the way, are Sorens and Rugers talking about illegal drugs? All drugs? This is not a pedantic point. Labeling substances that we disapprove of us as not drugs (consider the bizarre distinction between “drugs and alcohol”)-and things we don’t approve of as “drugs” has help enable what in my view is one of the most destructive policies in the past century, the “War on Drugs.”

[2] In the part of claim 2 that follows the ellipsis, Ruger and Sorens say “and can risk one’s self-respect, not to mention overall flourishing.” No reasonable person, of course, would disagree with the “can” claim.

[3] See “Against Mandatory Drug Testing,” in Drugs, Morality, and the Law ed. Curtis Brown and Steven Luper-Foy (Garland Publishers, 1994), pp. 301-17,” Smoking Tobacco: Irrationality, Addiction, and Paternalism,” Public Affairs Quarterly, (April 1994), pp. 187-203, and “Addiction and Drug Policy,” in Disputed Moral Issues ed. Mark Timmons (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.155-60 [also in a number of other Current Moral Problem anthologies]

[4] I strongly suspect being a heroin addict is difficult to do while living a good life (and I say so in class when I teach this subject). But I could be wrong. I am pretty sure based on the evidence available to me, that moderate use of opiates is quite compatible with living a good life. How do I know? Because it’s been done in various cultures.

[5] I’m ignorant about the context of this quote. Hey, I was raised an atheist Jew, forgive me 🙂

Published on:
Author: Daniel Shapiro
  • Fritz

    You’re asking for evidence. But that’s not the right way to look at the issue. There are those who would prefer a culture which isn’t libertine — sex is a private act between committed adults, drugs aren’t used openly and to addictive excess. There are those who claim that they don’t care about such things. But culture is an outward sign of the respect that people have for each other, their willingness and ability to cooperate beneficially. By the time sex and drugs had become cultural staples, the point of no return had been passed. Liberty had become license. America, like Rome, was on the road to ruin. The only question is when and how America will meet its end. It may be violently, at the hands of a Putin, or it may be in the quiet decay of the mutual trust and respect that undergirds beneficial social and economic cooperation. Fire or ice.

    • AP²

      There are those who prefer that women be veiled in public; there are those who claim that they don’t care about such things. By the same token, the latter should walk veiled in public out of respect and willingness to cooperate beneficially, no?

      I’m not saying you’re wrong, but that clearly, you need to find some objective reason why some moral hangups need to me respected and others don’t.

      • starchild

        Excellent point, AP. I also think that sex and drugs have been cultural staples throughout human history. Look at the birthrates in pre-20th-century America, or the levels of alcohol consumption (booze, as Daniel Shapiro reminds us, is indeed a drug).

        And there are those of us who would prefer a culture which is *more* libertine. We look at how society’s hangups around sexuality have long made people miserable – trapped in loveless monogamous marriages, GLBTQ people forced into the closet, etc. American culture is replete with talking about sex, using it to sell products, etc., and not enough of the actual thing. I believe more sex, and less obsession over the idea of sex, would make our society happier and more productive.

        Fritz, I’m not insisting you join me in being a polyamorous sex worker who enjoys psychedelic drugs. But I am asking you, in keeping with your talk about people having respect for each other, to respect my choices and not seek to have government treat me as a criminal and fine or incarcerate me for what I consensually do with my own body or what

        • martinbrock

          As long as you don’t expect to be in the same health insurance pool with people who eschew polyamorous sex work and psychedelic drugs, your choices are OK with me. If people eschewing these practices are willing to share a health insurance pool with you, their choices are OK with me too.

          • starchild

            Do you expect to be in the same health insurance pool with younger people who like myself don’t eat meat and who work out fanatically (~10% bodyfat)? (If people in those categories are willing to share a health insurance pool with those who aren’t, their choices are okay with me too.)

            Point being, of course, that there are *many* choices people make which result in them being lower or higher health insurance risks – I object to only singling out certain of those choices for special consideration.

          • martinbrock

            If your lifestyle is healthier than mine, for any reason, I’m happy for you to share an insurance pool with me, but I don’t want you forced to share it. My sexual preferences may be less healthy than yours. That’s beside the point.

            Yes, people make many choices affecting their health and may share an insurance pool with anyone of their choice. I want no authority, outside of voluntary communities, deciding who shares an insurance pool with whom.

  • Morality is hard because we often fail, and we must often acknowledge our failures. That’s part of the process of being moral. You can still be a good person and a moral failure.

    But I stay far away from drugs and pornography and I think most people would be wise to do the same. Can I prove it? Nope. Do I have enough evidence to convince people who already disagree with me? Nope.

    I’m far from perfect, but there are a few things I’ve figured out are big mistakes. If that makes me “seem judgmental,” I’m okay with that. Morality is really hard, and you’ll never get anywhere if you never take a stand, form a judgment, hold yourself to a high standard, and run the risk of seeming like a party pooper.

    • j_m_h

      Agreed that morality. But the question for me is just because porn or drugs is wrong for you – your partaking in them results in things you find undesirable (not sure if the porn or drugs in and of them selves is the bad or that they produce something bad, or if that can even be easily separated) — leads to a moral condition a sociaty should adope as opposed to it merely being a personal ethic you should follow.

    • starchild

      Do you really stay far away from drugs Ryan, or only those substances of which you disapprove (perhaps the same set of substances of which government arbitrarily disapproves)? Do you eschew coffee, aspirin, pain medications, anti-depression meds, erectile dysfunction meds? Even sugar, I contend, can be considered a mild drug – it has been shown to have drug-like effects.

      Indeed, the distinction between “food” and “drug” is an arbitrary and artificial one. Everything we put into our bodies effects our chemistry. Substances that we can consume in larger amounts without significant psychoactive effects we tend to call foods, and those which have psychoactive effects and must be consumed in smaller amounts if we do not wish to experience significant effects, or in some cases risk our health or safety, we call drugs. But it is a spectrum – a lightbulb attached to a dimmer switch, not a lightbulb attached to an on/off switch.

      Same goes for porn. My “porn” consists largely of workout and twerking videos and looking at models in swimsuits, not people nude or fucking. Other people have their own individual preferences. For some people, porn is looking at feet, or watching people eat, or watching them smoke.

      So when you say you “stay far away from” pornography, I’m not clear on exactly what you mean. Are you saying that you avoid looking at anything that you find sexually arousing or pleasurable to view? Again, it’s a spectrum. If you would be aroused by seeing conventionally attractive people having sex, but never allow yourself the pleasure of watching such things, you may in their absence find yourself sexually aroused by other less conventionally pornographic material, such as seeing a fully clothed actress like Rita Hayworth or Betty Davis in an old movie from the mid 20th century, just as to a starving person, even the most mundane and poorly prepared meal may seem like some of the best food he’s ever eaten.

      Is it your contention that if one gets feelings of sexual arousal from less-stimulating material in one’s self-imposed desert of stimulation, one is somehow avoiding the allegedly morally corrupting effects of pornography? Please explain.

      • I agree that, under the assumption that absolutely everything is a drug and everything is pornography, I could never claim to avoid either. But that’s ridiculous. Yes, there is personal judgment involved, welcome to the human experience.

        • starchild

          I think you’re dodging my questions, Ryan. Let’s stipulate for purposes of this discussion that pornography is anything that you find sexually arousing/pleasurable to view, and a drug is any substance you put into your body which has druglike effects, including all prescription and over-the-counter drugs and anything scheduled by the DEA. Given those definitions, are you really staying far away from all drugs and porn?

          Personal judgement is each person’s prerogative, but it should not be the basis for criminalizing anyone under the law, and I think too many people support the criminalization of others for various lifestyles that fail to meet some arbitrary threshold of social acceptance, based upon false rationalizations that their own preferences are somehow categorically different and that they do not enjoy consuming drugs or porn, when in fact they do.

          • I agree with your second paragraph.

            I have written at length about drugs, pornography, and other illusions at my blog, If you’re interested in the answers to your questions, feel free to read about it there.

        • Olmy Olm

          It’s not ridiculous if you consider the fact that, contrary to popular opinion, nothing is actually inherently addictive. Nothing has the power to actually take away a person’s free will. Addiciton is simply an unhealthy habit, nothing less, nothing more. Drugs in and of themselves cannot, and do not make anyone do anything – including take them. Even in the most extreme cases of drug use, a person does not lose their free will.

          The fact that almost everyone believes the opposite is true just shows how deluded we are as a culture.

          • If you think my objection to drugs is that they lead to addiction then you’re mistaken.

  • Kevin Currie-Knight

    “”In response to Steve Horwitz, they concede that “there might be circumstances that justify her decision””

    I haven’t been following along, but will now. The above statement caught my eye, because “justify’ is used sort of in the abstract. My question is simple: who does she need to justify her decision to? To whoever thinks her decision trades her dignity for something else?

    Basically, my problem with the hint that she can only decide to do porn if the situation “justifies” it (to someone’s satisfaction) is that it assumes that her reasons and her appraisal of her situation simply is not good enough. But why assume that?

  • Chmeee

    My thoughts, for what it’s worth, is why would someone’s particular brand of morality be better or worse than someone else’s? So long as no harm is done to you or anyone else, who are we to judge.

    • martinbrock

      Human beings judge these things. The libertarian question is not whether we may judge but whether we may impose our judgments forcibly.

  • j_m_h

    Just to toss out one other question, regarding point 1 above, here — what is the basis for dignity? Is dignity a self-view or a public view of an individual. I think that’s possible at the heart of the discussion and may relate strongly with where one stands here.

    • martinbrock

      Dignity is clearly enough for me a subjective impression and a matter of preference rather than objective value; however, “subjective” does not imply “unmeasurable”. We measure subjective value by asking the subject, and we can ask indirect questions or infer an answer without a direct answer.

      For example, Belle Knox is not her real name. Do porn stars use pseudonyms more frequently than bartenders or actors in community theater? The relevant question, seems to me, involves her subjective judgment. We already know how Sorens and Ruger feel about it.

      We can also measure regret, by asking former porn stars how they feel about their bargain after the fact. If we poll former porn stars and former bartenders about any regret they experience, are results for the two professions similar?

      If porn stars themselves consider their occupation undignified more frequently than bartenders, we haven’t measured dignity objectively, anymore than a measured preference for Coca Cola over Pepsi measures an objective value, but the result tells us something.

      My problem with Sorens and Ruger is not their opinion of porn stardom. Would they impose their subjective evaluation of dignity on others? Members of a free community may agree neither to consume nor to produce pornography. This standard of propriety, as a condition of membership in a voluntary community, is perfectly libertarian, and many free communities would adopt standards of this sort, because people like Sorens and Ruger exist.

      • j_m_h

        Martin, I don’t have any objection to your comments but don’t really see that they address the question I was trying to get at.
        If dignity is to be used as one of the criteria here and dignity is a purely personal view of ones self then I don’t quite see where that argument goes in terms of defining social rules. If dignity is something others give someone based on how they interact and treat the other person then I see where a case might be made but would say that merely pushes the discussion back one step.
        That one step is perhaps very important here (I think it will directly relate to things like christian pizza restaurants and gay customers) but it didn’t seem to be addressed in the post, but seemed a key assumption.

        • martinbrock

          Dignity is not a purely personal view of oneself, because we necessarily judge others by our personal standards. I don’t refrain from sex with 15 year olds only as a matter of personal preference. I believe that you should follow the same rule, and I would disassociate from you if you do not, but as a libertarian, I would not impose this rule on everyone everywhere.

          I would join a community in which the rule is a condition of membership and subject myself to punitive measures for violating it. I would not march into a community drawing the line at 14 to impose a different standard, but I don’t therefore believe that the difference is arbitrary or inconsequential. If I believed so, I could hardly follow the rule.

          In my way of thinking, we ask the Christian pizza (or wedding cake) question at the wrong level, the individual level rather than the community level. Conventional libertarians, these days, make this mistake routinely.

          An individual has no right to monopolize a parcel of land or a building or an oven or a refrigerator full of dough, or anything beyond his or her person, without the consent of other members of a voluntary community. A Christian community (like a monastery) may exclude gay members altogether, so it may certainly exclude them from a kitchen and dining area serving pizzas. A gay community (or a community welcoming both gay and straight people) may also exclude monks generally or only homophobic monks.

          • j_m_h

            The implication though is that you’re okay with forcing the behavior/moral on others or excluding them from society — possible banishment — regardless of any external opportunities. Your underlying assumption is that each individual not only is given (and encouraged to take under certain condition) an exit option but that option is not contingent on there being some where to exit into.
            Or am I missing something.

          • martinbrock

            Excluding persons from a voluntary community is not equivalent to forcing anything on them as long as a communities are many and varied. We vote with our feet for the standards of our choice.

            Yes, “liberty” is practically an inalienable right to exit a community at will in my formulation, and a community is a group of persons and resources subject to the terms of a contractual agreement.

            No, I accept a Lockean proviso. “Liberty” is meaningless if individuals have no meaningful opportunity to find or to found a community, welcoming new members, reflecting their preferences; however, as a practical matter, establishing a community requires a sufficient number of members claiming sufficient resources.

            A community may not expel a member violating its standards if expulsion is fatal. It must maintain the member, possibly in a prison or other undesirable circumstances, unless and until the member chooses to exit; otherwise, the right to exit is meaningless.

          • j_m_h

            Lets say everyone in the neighborhood in which I life share your views but I don’t. Who moves? If no one moves does that mean that while we’re geographically very close and so will interact on some level on a regular basis that we’re not a community by your definition?

          • martinbrock

            You move. A community is a collection of resources and rules governing their use. If you’re the odd man out, then the rules presumably favor your neighbors.

            You could live near the boundary between two communities with conflicting rules. In my community, the age of consent is sixteen. In yours, it’s fifteen. You enter my community and have sex with a fifteen year old. We would like to jail you according to our rules, but we can’t hold you against your will, so you return to your community.

            You win. For you personally, it’s that simple, but in practice, neighboring communities have agreements governing this sort of thing, because these agreements benefit both communities. Without these agreements, members of my community may retaliate by entering your community to steal your cow or beat you or something. If we make it back into our community, we win, because the only permissible force is the force of attraction holding members in their communities despite an inalienable right to exit.

            So in this scenario, I expect your community to penalize you for violating our standards even though the behavior is permissible in your community. The penalty in your community may differ from the penalty in ours, but you won’t likely violate the standards of a neighboring community with impunity, and since people are free to move, neighboring communities will have similar standards anyway.

  • martinbrock

    A market discovers prices. Libertarians oppose price controls (globally), but we don’t oppose prices. A free society similarly discovers dignity. Libertarians do not advocate dignity control, but dignity is as essential to a free society as prices are to a market.