Saturday, July 9, 2016

Virtue and libertarianism

Reason posted a debate on virtue libertarianism, which is more or less defined in opposition to "libertine libertarianism," an ideology which is "radically indifferent to the choices that people make with their freedom." William Ruger and Jason Sorens define it as follows:
What we call virtue libertarianism is the alternative to libertinism of the stronger and weaker varieties. Virtue libertarians recognize that we have a duty to respect our own moral nature and to promote its development in others in proportion to the responsibility we have for them. Heavy drug use that destroys one's own moral or rational faculties is inconsistent with that duty. Sexual license, gluttony, and the ancient vice of pleonexia—an excessive desire to acquire material and other goods—can overpower the virtue of self-command, which Adam Smith astutely recognized as the key to all the other virtues. To respect others, we must act beneficently and generously toward them, not just refrain from taking their freedom. 
I'm not going to comment on how well Ruger and Sorens did in making their argument for virtue libertarianism. What struck me was how libertarians around the web reacted, particularly at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog I like to follow.

I know this might not be such a charitable summary, but essentially it boils down to this: other libertarians accuse Ruger and Sorens of attacking a straw man, and then immediately proceed to behave exactly like that straw man. To be specific, we have libertarians saying that of course we ought to be virtuous, but who's to say that porn, drugs, and decadent lifestyles are really all that bad?

This is where I get off the bus with libertarians. I have absolutely no interest in debating these things with people who think themselves too enlightened, too sophisticated for traditional morals. If these thinkers wish for evidence that such vices are bad, I can only point to centuries of moral tradition telling us as much. Pornography and drugs are degrading, inasmuch as they treat the human body is nothing more than a pleasure factory, and not as a sacred gift to be appreciated and maintained respectfully.

That doesn't mean libertarian policies are wrong. Just because it is wrong to use cocaine doesn't mean that the government is justified using violence to prevent its use. One can never merely ask the question, "Is it wrong to do X?" in order to derive good policy. One must also ask the subsequent question, "What is the morally appropriate response to X?"

At bottom, I suppose I am really not a libertarian at all, insofar as I do not really believe in self-ownership. I support libertarian policies because I don't believe the government owns me. But as for self-ownership, I belong to God, not to myself. Indeed, I find the very concept of self-ownership incoherent. For if I own something, this means I can dispose of it as I will. Yet if I dispose of myself (i.e. commit suicide) then I have destroyed my ability to make any future decisions. My supposed freedom to do with myself whatever I will negates my freedom. (Yes, this does have policy implications. Unlike, I suppose, the majority of libertarians, I don't support the right to assisted suicide, although end of life issues can be tricky.)

By the way, I believe Christianity is the religion of liberty, but I think that deserves a separate post. What's really essential at this point is that I have no interest in libertine libertarianism. And yes, this is real phenomenon which can easily be found, among other places, at I have no interest in defending a college woman's right to become a porn actress in order to pay for her studies. I have no interest in defending the recreational use of drugs as a fun and therefore good thing. Neither do I have any interest, for that matter, in claiming that Americans ought to own as many guns as they want, or that they should have as much money as they want. All of these things--sex, drugs, weapons, money--very quickly become vices, and I don't think society is better for rejoicing at the abundance of such vices.

Again, I offer no defense of this proposition, because my opponents share none of the foundational assumptions on which it is based. If one approaches moral questions like a rationalist, insisting on scientific evidence that such behaviors really are destructive, then one is never going to be convinced. The only thing I can point out to libertarians is how ironic it is that they should take such an approach, given that one of their intellectual leaders is one such as F. A. Hayek.

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