Joseph Rowlands
Joseph Rowlands

Libertarianism and Moral Disintegration

I was having a discussion with a libertarian friend the other day. I was talking about how offended I am at "modern art". How splashing paint onto a canvass was not art. That the creators of such garbage are not artists, but con artists.

He then said something that surprised me. He said that there was nothing wrong with modern art. He didn't know what I was complaining about. After all, the painters weren't initiating force against anyone.

This is one symptom of a problem that affects many libertarians. Since libertarianism deals primarily with politics, the focus is entirely on the use of force between people. Since the applications of the non-coercion principle are so varied, and violated so often by governments, there is an abundance of reading material and discussion material available. It is easy to get stuck in this narrow perspective. Although many libertarians become libertarians because of a pretty rational implicit philosophy, the study of libertarianism tends to cause an increasingly irrational world-view.

The complete enthrallment with the non-coercion principle has a series of effects on one's world-view. The most widespread problem is equating the non-coercion principle with morality. Although properly founded in morality, the non-coercion principle is not a moral code. It is a political principle derived from a moral standard. By treating this moral principle as a complete moral system, the libertarians create a number of problems for themselves.

The first problem is the belief that anything that doesn't violate individual rights is good, and anything that does violate rights is evil. This explains the discussion of art above. Everything is good if it comes from a free market. It also explains why so many libertarians insist that using drugs to suppress one's mind is perfectly moral. The standard of good is if an action is voluntary. Of course, this is just a variety of hedonism.

Of course, very few people will take it to this logical conclusion. Instead, they'll argue that most actions are amoral. That there is no such thing as a moral act. Only an immoral one. Although this seems similar to believing every act moral except coercion, in fact, the effect is significantly different. The denial of the good leaves one with the impossibility of taking credit for moral accomplishments.

This makes libertarianism extremely unappealing to the public. And for good reason. It is a claim that any kind of self-destructive action is okay. It says that malevolence is fine, if it doesn't violate rights. It says that there is nothing wrong with being rude or condescending. That there is nothing wrong with being irresponsible. That any action is morally permissible, if it doesn't involve coercion.

Substituting the non-coercion principle for morality is a rejection of ethics. It destroys any explicit ethical standard. Since ethics is necessary and unavoidable, a gap is left. The void must be filled, though. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, there is no choice about having a moral standard. The only question is whether it is left implicit and contradictory, or made explicit and rational. Substituting the non-coercion principle for ethics is an attempt to deny this need. The attempt must fail, though. Ignoring the need won't make it go away; it just leaves you without control.

Another problem that libertarians have with regard to the non-coercion principle is that they begin to view morality as a restriction on one's actions. The non-coercion principle disallows certain activities, but leaves nothing as a guide to what actions one should take. The moral code, instead of being a guide to living, becomes a restriction on one's actions.

Being merely a restraint on action, morality seems to become a hindrance to living. This creates or strengthens the belief in the moral/practical dichotomy. If one sees morality as a restriction on ones actions, the question soon arises "What do I do if the non-coercion principle gets in the way of my self-interest?" If the premise that morality is a limit on one's self-interest is true, not only will morality become uninspiring, it will be ignored as counterproductive. So attempting to substitute a political principle for a moral standard not only destroys morality, it undermines the political principle.

There is a further effect, though. By accepting the moral/practical dichotomy, one accepts that morality is a form of sacrifice. That one's interests are to be sacrificed to some other standard. What standard? In this case, it is to the non-coercion principle. Or more specifically, one is to sacrifice for other people. Altruism.

It doesn't matter that this is a watered-down version of altruism. What matters is that it is based on the same argument. Or more exactly, the same lack of argument. It requires sacrifice for no reason.

The non-coercion principle is a political principle. It is founded in ethics, but is only a small portion of it. It is ethics applied to other people. Never confuse it with ethics. The result is not only an abdication of morality, it is an abdication of the principle. Political principles are not floating abstractions. They need a moral foundation. If you choose not to provide one, you are implying that you accept the premise without reason. You are conceding any rational grounds for you position.

More importantly, you are opening yourself up to any moral standard. If you refuse to choose consciously, you only refuse to choose rationally. And since politics is based on ethics, whatever ethics you choose will affect your political principles. Most people are attracted to libertarianism because it is consistent with their ethical premises. When those premises are changed, there is an incentive to change one's position.

Some libertarians believe they can use the fact that libertarianism is practical as their moral justification. This is untenable without a moral foundation. Why is practicality good? Only morality can decide. Only a morality based on life can translate to the practical being good. Only a morality based on self-interest can require the non-initiation of force. Ignore this at your own peril.

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