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 to 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 a 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 wellbeing 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 moral critics of 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 romantically involved with someone else, much less that someone who does prevent herself 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 wrong on 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.

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