Must Libertarians Be Amoral?

A recently published paper by Ravi Iyer and coauthors on the “libertarian personality” has been getting a great deal of attention. To recap the findings,

Compared to self-identified liberals and conservatives, libertarians showed 1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles; 2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style; and 3) lower interdependence and social relatedness. As predicted by intuitionist theories concerning the origins of moral reasoning, libertarian values showed convergent relationships with libertarian emotional dispositions and social preferences.

Like conservatives, libertarians apparently tend to have little truck with moral values like compassion, while like liberals, they tend to despise values like loyalty. The only thing that matters to them, allegedly, is freedom. Furthermore, libertarians are cold utilitarians: in the “trolley problem,” they show themselves more willing than liberals and conservatives to kill an innocent person to save a larger number of people. In addition, the authors find that “libertarians were the only group to report valuing pragmatic, non-moral traits more than moral traits. Libertarians may hesitate to view traits that engender obligations to others (e.g. loyal, generous, sympathetic) as important parts of who they are because such traits imply being altruistic.”

Put it all together, and libertarians sound like a distasteful bunch. Indeed, “distasteful” is putting it rather too weakly. Libertarians look to be amoral.

Now, Ilya Somin has some trenchant criticisms of the study, which we should bear in mind. Still, if the study is unbiased — and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the findings did hold in the population of self-identified libertarians, it points to some serious problems in how libertarianism, at least popular libertarianism, conceives of itself.

As we never tire of noting here at Pileus, libertarianism is not a complete moral theory. It is a political theory or, at most, a theory of justice. Libertarianism is fully consistent with a belief in positive duties to others, such as duties of beneficence, and in duties to the self, such as duties of self-respect. In that sense, one can hold both liberal and conservative moral values simultaneously with libertarian values. I myself incorporate a rather strong environmental and egalitarian ethos alongside fairly conservative views about personal behavior (some prudential, some moral in the strict sense).

The point that some libertarians would stress is that liberty must come first. After all, forced compassion is not true compassion, forced loyalty is not true loyalty, and so on. For these motives to have moral worth, they have to be freely accepted. Thus, sacrificing liberty to compassion or liberty to loyalty is necessarily self-defeating. Libertarianism does not denigrate the other virtues; it elevates them.

Whether most libertarians understand this is another question. Indeed, when it comes to liberty itself, that value is put at risk by a utilitarian standard of evaluation that can trade off the rights of some against the interests of others. It used to be that libertarians grounded their defense of liberty in the basic dignity of the individual human being. Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard all took this approach, in widely varying ways. Perhaps that is no longer the case.

Finally, however, I must register a very fundamental complaint with the bulk of the methodology of this paper and others in the “Jonathan Haidt corpus.” Their questionnaire is designed to track your gut-level, instantaneous reactions to various stimuli, not your reasoned reflection. It is possible that many libertarians do prize other virtues on an intellectual level that would provoke real action in the world. The reason I find the whole Iyer, Haidt, et al. enterprise fundamentally limited is that they discount the very possibility of rational justification for political philosophy, holding that psychological predispositions determine moral thinking. But difference-of-means tests don’t establish causality. A world in which people were incapable of moving beyond their crude animal instincts to take a wider view of their responsibilities would be a depressing and hopeless one indeed. Fortunately, we have examples like the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women to show us that ideas really do matter, and people’s minds do change as a result of reasoned argumentation.

8 thoughts on “Must Libertarians Be Amoral?

    1. Yes, I know what you’re referring to, and I had the same reaction. It was Ron Bailey, I think. He seemed to think that the findings were flattering to libertarians.

  1. 35 years ago,when I first described myself to other people as a libertarian,they looked at me with a blank stare. Most thought I meant Liberal. Of course Liberal was a term taken by Progressives who were really Socialists. So I guess classic liberal now means libertarian. Its funny how people like to put labels on other people and then pigeonhole them into groups that are supposed to act in a certain manner. This is often done with many diverse groups. Blacks,Hispanics,Jews,Italians and on and on. As if pigeonholing an individual into a group somehow describes that person, their lifestyle and worldview. Oh,”he or she is a libertarian so they must think such and such a way.” But,after years in the political wilderness.maybe this recognition of having a valid political philosophy will be positive,on the whole,for America. As many,but not all Libertarians,once labeled themselves as Conservative or Conservative Republicans. When its obvious that the old Conservative values of say a Robert Taft or a Barry Goldwater are long gone and have,instead,migrated over to the Libertarian Party. At least now,most libertarians can hang their hats on a solid philosophy that can be explained in a pro liberty positive manner. And,oh yes, when today I describe myself as a libertarian most people think of that label as something positive toward freedom and don’t just sit there with a blank stare.

  2. Professor Sorens,

    If you haven’t already, you should take a look at Professor Massimo Piglucci’s criticisms of Haidt for another valid (and devastating, IMHO) critique of Prof. Haidt’s valiant but fundamentally flawed project.

  3. I’d simply like to add Ayn Rand’s own opinion on the libertarian movement as she saw them attempting to relate to her philosophy and moral, highly principled standard of Objectivism. From the Ayn Rand Lexicon under Libertarians:

    “For the record, I shall repeat what I have said many times before: I do not join or endorse any political group or movement. More specifically, I disapprove of, disagree with, and have no connection with, the latest aberration of some conservatives, the so-called “hippies of the right,” who attempt to snare the younger or more careless ones of my readers by claiming simultaneously to be followers of my philosophy and advocates of anarchism. Anyone offering such a combination confesses his inability to understand either. Anarchism is the most irrational, anti-intellectual notion ever spun by the concrete-bound, context-dropping, whim-worshiping fringe of the collectivist movement, where it properly belongs.”

    I just want to make the record and association clear.

    1. It seems to me that the most worshipful Ayn Rand is the one who misunderstands anarchism, which is “no ruler”, not “no laws”. Many anarchists are indeed as she describes them, “irrational” “collectivists”, and maybe it is these to which she refers. But she is also guilty of a generalization that makes her look uninformed. Was Lysander Spooner or Jeffrey Tucker or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon a collectivist? I think not. (Well maybe PJP a little). In many ways she was by far more a collectivist than they. Perhaps their adherents were in a minority in her day, or perhaps she had not even heard of them (I find that somewhat doubtful). She is clearly confused.

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