Theory, Meet Practice
“My ethical leanings are reasonably anti-consequentialist. That is, I don’t think what makes shoplifting a soda right or wrong is a matter of the unhappiness it causes.”
I lean toward virtue ethics, or a blend of virtue ethics and Kantian ethics. What makes something right or wrong are the character traits it manifests and develops (virtue), or the degree to which it fails to respect a person’s dignity (Kantian). That is, what makes shoplifting wrong is that it exhibits greed, inflated self-centeredness, and lack of sympathy. And it fails to respect the shopkeeper. It does all this even if the shopkeeper never finds out or is never made unhappy about it.
This is very similar to the way that I think about ethics as well. I would add, however, that sometimes it’s difficult not to act in a way for which utilitarianism is the only good explanation. And I find nothing particularly wrong with those acts, provided they don’t implicate either respect for persons or the cultivation of virtue. Might as well have pleasure along the way, no? Moreover, the results of cultivating virtue and showing respect for persons are often of the sort that a type of utilitarian might bless as well.
So the other day I was thinking about why I am not a libertarian. Libertarianism kind of matches with Kantian ethics. I am assuming here that a political right is similar to a moral right – that is, something that must not be violated under any circumstances, even if doing so would create better outcomes.
Rose is quite right that Kantian ethics and (many forms of) libertarian political theory go well together. Both proceed deontologically, from motivations that are not about expected happiness, pleasure, or other readily identified consequences. Instead they are about respect for abstract moral imperatives. (You may find these imperatives contemptible or praiseworthy, but there they are, and anyway, I’m doing a typology here, not a polemic.)
It’s also possible to construct a libertarian political theory right on top of the categorical imperative: If we are to treat people never as a means to some other end, but always as ends in themselves, this will very obviously place strict limits on the state as well. The state is a collection of people, and the categorical imperative has no exemption for people in funny uniforms.
Obviously individuals in a society can’t have a completely limitless freedom — a freedom that would allow them, nonconsensually, to beat or kill one another for pleasure, or to pollute the property of others, or to steal whatever they could get away with. Classical liberals instead proposed the law of equal freedom, whereby every member of the political community is to have the greatest freedom that is compatible with a like freedom in all other members. It’s probably too much of a digression to explain why this is a reasonable translation of the imperative into politics, but I do think it is.
What, though, are the implications of all this theory?
Some libertarians, like James Hanley, have no use for it at all. They are libertarian in their political orientation because they have a consequentialist ethics; as an added premise, they believe that libertarianism produces good consequences.
Other libertarians — like Murray Rothbard — would dismantle the state immediately because it is immoral. A deontologist should never will anything that is immoral, much less actively support it, and libertarian anarchists oppose the state for just this reason.
Then there’s me. I’ll freely admit to being more swayed by deontological than consequentialist arguments, with some very significant qualifications. What follows is a bit of how that works in practice.
Why is Bloomberg-style nannyism wrong? I would say it’s because it shows disrespect for persons, who ought in principle to be able to make their own choices in life, even if they are “bad” choices, and even if these choices will occasionally cost me, the taxpayer, a few pennies. If the pennies become more important than the choices, then we are treating people as a means to an end, and that’s wrong.
Be the author of your own life, even if maybe I do have to pay a little bit more for it. Why? Because I’ve got a few “bad” decisions of my own to make, and I fully intend to make them. So does everyone. And anyhow, the real problem here isn’t that people are making bad choices. It’s that we’ve socialized these choices’ costs. Without the cost-sharing, we wouldn’t need the censoriousness. Meanwhile, we’ve also implemented policies to ensure that some decisions are vastly more expensive than they need to be. Consequentialists, if you’d like to get to work, start here.
Although I’m more or less a deontologist, I also think — and this moderates my libertarianism a very great deal — that we do not necessarily know how to implement a type of society that conforms with what libertarian deontology demands. Sure, we could always get rid of the government, but we have very good reason to believe that if we did so, the result would be a society that showed vastly less respect for persons as ends in themselves. This would not be an improvement.
I know that a good deontologist should never will anything that violates the moral law — not for any reason whatsoever. But what if “bad government” and “even worse anarchy” are the only choices that we know how to will? If I’m right, we clearly shouldn’t will the anarchy.
So what’s a choiceless deontologist to do? We can always work at the margins. Maybe we can get the same otherwise good results — understood here as respect for autonomy — with one less instance, here or there, of incidentally using people merely as a means to an end. Maybe we could get the same otherwise good results with less imprisonment, or fewer wars, or more scope for individual choice through the market and through other social institutions as well. Or maybe we could even get better results. How much better? We don’t know.
Can we finance a government without taxation? We obviously can’t, not with our current levels of economic output, and the current demands we make on the state, and the current methods of voluntary finance, which are, truth be told, pathetic. Could we do better? I don’t know. Could we rule it out? No. Which means we should try. Incrementally, gradually, and learning as we go.
None of us has ever been to utopia, not even Murray Rothbard. Many parts of the libertarian theoretical picture are still a blank canvas. Many parts are undoubtedly wrong. I’m okay with that, as anyone should be who takes the word “theory” for what it really means — not a prescription set in stone, but an explanatory model that is subject to falsification through experiment.
 I’m favoring the word “utilitarian” here because utilitarianism is not the only form of consequentialism; to be a consequentialist is to base one’s ethics on the expected results of an act or a rule. But to be a utilitarian is to base one’s ethics specifically on the pleasures and pains that we expect in advance from an act or a rule.
 A certain philosopher once argued all of this without appearing even to realize it, which I think is hilarious.