Libertarian Social Morality: Progressive, Conservative or Liberal?

By Kevin Vallier

Libertarians regularly argue about the relationship between their political commitments and their “moral views.” The disagreement seems to proceed by answers to two questions.

1. Do libertarian political commitments imply moral commitments?

2. If yes, which moral commitments?

Those who answer “No” to the first question are sometimes called “thin” libertarians, whereas those who answer “Yes” are said to affirm some form of “thick” libertarianism (Charles Johnson wrote perhaps the classic piece on the thick-thin distinction). Next libertarians debate about which moral views they should get thick with (pardon the pun).

I. Distinguish Domains of the Moral

I think the debate is obscured by a failure to delineate between different types of moral views. For instance, Steve and Sarah’s recent provocative piece protested both the practice of “slut-shaming” along with the merely moral view that it is wrong for women to have many sexual partners. Consider,

Borowski then slut shames women who engage in casual sex, off-handedly dismisses the possibility that a libertarian could be pro-choice, and spirals off into an unfocused critique of the luxury goods market. Every single one of these things that she criticizes women for doing should be seen not as causes for shame, but as complex choices that smart, thoughtful women can and do make, without destroying their lives in the process.

I’m not out to criticize Steve and Sarah, just to point out that the passage elides the distinction between a moral practice and a moral view. For instance, you might condemn the moral practice of slut-shaming while still holding the moral view that no one should have numerous sexual partners.

To follow P.F. Strawson, we might distinguish between two forms of morality: social morality and individual ideal. Individual ideas are personal views about the best, transcendent, holy, righteous and pure form of life. They can completely captivate an individual but they seldom play the public coordinating function of a social morality. A social morality is a system of rules that ground relations of accountability and moral responsibility. Recognized social-moral rules are the ground for practices of praise and blame that genuinely motivate behavior and is one of the foundations of social order as such. All societies have some form of social morality, even very primitive ones.

The distinction is subtler than I’ve indicated, but we can already see how it illuminates new conceptual space in the thick-thin debates. You might hold, for instance, that libertarian political commitments require a relatively progressive social morality but permit one to affirm conservative individual ideals. Or one might think that a full philosophical assessment of libertarianism should lead people to endorse both libertarianism and a comprehensive individual ideal like Objectivism, but that libertarianism does not dictate the form of a justified social morality. In this way, I can agree with Sarah and Steve that slut-shaming should not be part of the social morality of a free people (for one thing, as it is typically practiced, it treats men and women unequally) but I can also believe that libertarianism does not require us to think that sexual promiscuity is part of the true moral ideal. The relationship between moral truth and moral practice is complicated.

Ok, so in light of the social morality-individual ideal distinction, what shall we say about the thick-thin libertarianism debate? I now see five questions to ask:

1. Do libertarian political commitments imply social-moral commitments?

2. If so, which social-moral commitments?

3. Do libertarian political commitments imply commitments to individual ideals?

4. If so, which ideals?

5. If the answers to 2 and 4 conflict, how should we resolve the conflict?

I think libertarian political commitments do not entail particular individual ideals. I’m a thin libertarian in this regard. And I’m pleased by this fact. Given my public reason libertarianism, I’m elated by the fact that libertarianism does not require us to hold a single comprehensive view of the good. That would count against libertarianism, the true political view should be able to become the object of an overlapping consensus.

II. Libertarian Social Morality: Liberal, Not Progressive or Conservative

However, I do think libertarian political commitments imply limitations on the form of social morality. So I disagree with some conservative libertarians that a libertarian society must endorse traditional social moralities in order to maintain the thick civil associations critical to maintaining a stable, free society. But I also disagree with left-libertarians who think that a feminist social morality must undergird a free society in order to prevent state domination to creep into a society based on its toleration of patriarchal domination.

In fact, these are empirical claims that neither side has established. One reason they have not is due to a failure of most in the debate to distinguish between social morality and individual ideals. The relationship between libertarianism and individual ideals is a more philosophical matter, about how different beliefs hang together. But the relationship between libertarianism and social morality concerns more how political and moral practices fit together in the real-world. Since libertarians often elide the distinction, they think philosophical arguments about the relationship between libertarianism and individual ideals is enough to establish empirical claims about the relationship between libertarianism and social morality.

I think it’s quite hard to know in the abstract which social moralities best underpin libertarian political commitments. But I do think we can say something. Specifically, I think we have reason to believe that libertarian political commitments require a liberal social morality rather than a conservative or progressive one. A conservative social morality would morally sanction people who decided not to comply with conservative values, and a progressive social morality would sanction people who fail to comply with progressive values. In other words, the two social moralities are similar because they make your moral deviations everybody’s business.

I don’t think a free society can be stable if one group insists on sanctioning those who rationally and reasonably disagree with them. A free society is necessarily diverse, so to impose a conservative or progressive social morality will likely require authoritarian efforts because people will think themselves entitled to morally browbeat their free and equal fellows.

The best social morality for a free society is liberal, one that recognizes that much of our behavior is nobody else’s business. A free people will tend to sanction others who fail to respect others’ psychological and social boundaries and who needlessly violate personal privacy. A liberal social morality is akin to traffic law, where we need not see into others’ cars to coordinate and cooperate with them. A liberal social morality is therefore rather limited in scope but the rules are simple, strong and quickly enforced. Relatively few matters should be the object of general moral scrutiny, just as there are relatively few matters that should be the subject to coercive force.

III. Towards a “Liberal” Libertarianism

Debates about the relationship between libertarianism and morality should distinguish between different domains of the moral, specifically between social morality and individual ideals. Second, these debates would also do well to distinguish three forms of social morality: progressive, conservative and liberal. Progressive and conservative social moralities run the risk of authoritarianism, whereas a simpler, “mind your business” liberal social morality may better support libertarian political institutions.

2 replies »

  1. My thoughts are akin to Anthony de Jasay’s: justice has to do with definitions, procedural logic and consistency in theory and practice.
    Libertarianism would be pro-justice, in this minimal sense. I can’t quite bring myself to say whether I could endorse a ‘pro-justice’ morality because I don’t know quite what is being said in ‘moral’ assertions.I am pro-justice in any case, at least as a general rule.

  2. This is stupid. Libertarianism is an ethic. No morality is implied.

    I’m a humanist. Transhumanist.

    But fuck if i can tell you what to do, I can only say morally what I think you should do. Political thought should refrain itself to ethics.

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