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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/18314/a-brief-thought-on-the-libertarian-message/

A Brief Thought on the Libertarian Message

September 3, 2011 by

I come from a family of liberals (well, for the most part), and so when we come together for family dinners or whatnot we tend to get into debates.  Today I had a short conversation with my father over my future and what my intentions were.  I also commented on how I was scared that through a culture of re-affirmation (that is, if I decided to continue my education at institutions which already agreed with my point of view) I would close my mind to alternative points of view.  This led him, for some reason, to suggest that one of the major problems I face is my lack of sympathy for the “less fortunate.”

I immediately corrected him.  As a “quasi”-consequentialist I tend to judge libertarianism by the outcomes of certain policies (or, better said, lack of policies).  I honestly believe that the free market could better provide for the “less fortunate” than an interventionist economy, and that an interventionist economy will lead to the further impoverishment of the “less fortunate” over the long run.  He disagreed and I gave the example of the food industry.  In more capitalistic countries, where regulation on food production and distribution is relatively minor, food is plentiful — there is a surplus that can be exported.  There are some who are “malnourished”, but malnourishment in the United States is not the same as malnourishment in Sudan, for the most part.  Yet, in countries where food is rationed there is widespread malnourishment and famine.

This isn’t to say that capitalism is “perfect”, but perfection is impossible — as long as people act there is also further satisfactions to be attained.  A capitalist market simply provides the freedom for people to allocate between means and ends, providing a proverbial “process” in which services and goods can be better provided for.  Like the food industry, I honestly believe that a free market in healthcare will better provide for the “less fortunate.”

Last weekend I attended a conference in San Antonio, Texas, with Jeffrey Friedman, of Critical Review.  I have never been more intellectually stimulated in my life, and for the most part I sympathized and agreed with everything Friedman had to say (it’s hard to disagree with him, because if the man isn’t a genius he’s definitely close to one).  He made the point that I think many of us can agree with (although, this is probably something that can lead to heated debate): the consequentialist argument for libertarianism is much stronger than the moral argument, because the moral argument can be debated (as someone who believes in the subjectivity of morality, I think persuasion on moral grounds will be extremely difficult, because there’s no way to objectively prove what is right or wrong — as bad as it sounds, my libertarianism doesn’t operate on a moral compass, for example).

But, my conversation with my father made it obvious to me that the consequentialist argument is equally as difficult.  Like libertarianism, the liberal argument for redistribution is a mixture of consequentialism and morality.  Redistribution is good because the less fortunate should be provided for, and the more production we are on average the more productive society is (as if a redistribution of wealth is not a redistribution of productivity and a handicap on productivity).  Furthermore, many of the economic arguments for libertarianism are very complex and difficult to grasp — oftentimes, they require a “broad scope” picture that many people can’t envision.

Does this make spreading libertarianism a hopeless endeavor?  I don’t think so (although, I have a strange and maybe unique vision of how a more libertarian society will be achieved — one that doesn’t require a change in ethics).  I think it just means that we can’t discard one method of persuasion for another.  There is a sort of division of labor amongst the libertarian community, and I think that’s a good thing.  A two-prong approach tackles the issue from two separate perspectives, either of which may persuade the target individual.

My subtle point is that this really puts into perspective the fight we’re facing.  The question is: how are we going to approach educating people and winning the wider debate?  How do we plan to diffuse our ideas throughout the population?   These are questions we’re going to have to answer if we plan to have a greater impact on the common worldview.  Ron Paul’s activism and work by others up to now has made a great difference, but the libertarian community is still relatively very small compared to others (I think it’s size is oftentimes magnified beyond its real volume by the internet).

What do you think?


Ymbel September 3, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Be a light onto the world. In this regard it’s good to look over Leonard Reads article ‘How to advance liberty’ and Nock’s on’Isaiah’s Job’. Another reminder of which Leonard Read talked about is the concept that it’s not a numbers game. Joseph Chilton Pearce in ‘Exploring the crack in the cosmic egg’ says-”One can stop that world personally(…..The great beehive activity of cultural “correctives” sustains and creates itself, and culture can never be stoped and changed out-there)by a shift of dominance within. Then it makes no difference what apparent madness is going on. For the flow can then complete its circuitry and work in this one case,and that is all that is important. Cultural thinking judges everything as a number’s game, which keeps you contextually oriented”.

And on the topic of cultural re-affirmation, if you haven’t already, take a look at comparative mythology. Someone like Joseph Campbell. There are truths that run through all times and all societies that are clothe in different names(anarchy,libertarian,stoics,the Tao,Zen)but are eternal truths whose tenents are found in all schools that truly preach freedom.

About it not being a numbers game if you want something concrete on that see-www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110725190044.htm The article is titled “minority rules: scientists discover tipping point for the spread of ideas

A voice of the Remnant

R Lee September 3, 2011 at 8:15 pm

The natural way of the world is that the strong thrive and the weak perish; like other natural laws it can be seemingly subverted, but in reality never really undone. Efforts to do so, like politics and religion, in the long run do nothing but make the “problem” larger than it originally was. “Systems” are nothing more than the silly machinations of men foolish enough to believe they can conquer natural law, or vicious enough to pretend to the weak they can. And then at bottom, it’s still the same old unalterable natural law.

El Tonno September 4, 2011 at 6:18 am

Considering that “weak” and “strong” are completely subjective attributes that can moreover be seriously changed by an adduction of an AK-74, this is a dubious standpoint.

R Lee September 4, 2011 at 8:24 am

It’s circular. All judgments of strength are to be decided at the outcome of the contest. Therefore it’s not at all subjective. As you point out there are many kinds of strength.

simon September 3, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Much like Capitalism un tethered un regulated has shown itself to be damaged by the human condition of greed, for all the ideas that libertarianism has that are very appealing, I am now of the opinion that too much of one thing is bad. Ying and Yang, socialist and conservative a bit of both is better than all of one or the other.

Ralph Fucetola JD September 3, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Simon, one of the most powerful points made by Mises (in I believe, Socialism) was that “mixed” societies cannot be stable but must move one way – toward freely chosen individual Human Action – or the other way, toward the ultimately socialist dialectic activities of legal fictions such as nations, peoples and corporations…

Daniel September 3, 2011 at 9:00 pm

I won’t discuss the “giving to the poor is good in itself” aspect of your idea. Instead I will simply suppose it true.

Now what?

If it’s “good” to give, why should anyone be coerced to do so? Won’t people do it of their own volition?

No? Is there greater virtue then, in threatening with death, rape and violence, those that prefer to not be “good”?

If anything, if your opinion is that taking action against others who have not aggressed against your person or your property property to make them oblige to what you think is proper or correct, then the burden of proof is on you and not libertarians.

And I believe you suffer from something Nozick wrote about: to you, “capitalism” isn’t really “on trial” because you already have the verdict in your pocket, and it is guilty.

Tyrone Dell September 4, 2011 at 1:53 am

If the human condition of greed is the problem, where are we to find the angels that are going to organize society for us?

Alexander S. Peak September 4, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Simon writes, “Ying and Yang, socialist and conservative a bit of both is better than all of one or the other.”

How about none of either?

Alex Peak

Ivan Georgiev September 3, 2011 at 8:45 pm

The so-called dogma of less fortunate is false. This concept of individuals who are somehow handicapped uses the natural human diversity as an apology for a should statement (policy). If less fortunate means that there is someone who is poorer/less productive/stupider/uglier/fatter/slower/ then there is ALWAYS someone who is “less fortunate” than someone else. As long as individuals are not perfect clones of each other there will be some that are “less fortunate”. The other problem is how do we decide who are the people that will be in the group of more fortunate and who are the people that will be in the group of less fortunate. I might claim that I’d rather prefer to be uglier than I am, and since now I am very pretty this makes me handicapped, i.e. less fortunate, and I need half of your wealth, because this will make me happier.
There are probably a hundred other problems with this stupid theory. It is very wide spread in Europe where it is constantly repeated that the yardstick of a civilized society is the help that is provided to “the less fortunate”. No one ever has given a COHERENT definition of this term and of the theory as a whole. There simply isn’t and can not exist, because it is nothing more than a political excuse for stealing productive individuals’ wealth. Everyone constantly comes up with different criteria for “less fortunate”. In Europe it is already a trend to WANT AND PRETEND to be “less fortunate” in order to profit from the “all giving socialistic system of Europe”. This is a perversion and has some really bad effects:
1. It harms productive individuals
2. Harms society as a whole because of the destruction of capital
3. Harms productive individuals who would have made donations if their wealth was not stolen
4. Stimulates individuals to prefer leisure, to be careless, to lie, to cheat and etc. Makes it more profitable to be less responsible.
5. Makes individuals dependent on help

Morality is not subjective. Please read this http://www.hanshoppe.com/wp-content/uploads/publications/hoppe_ult_just_liberty.pdf

Jonathan M.F. Catalán September 3, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Every time I’ve argued about Hoppe’s theory everyone tells me it’s not an ethical/moral theory. Can you condense the argument in your own words?

Ivan Georgiev September 3, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Hoppe’s theory is not ethical in the sense that it does not make ought statements. Yes, it concerns human action but does not make propositions which action is preferable to which because of some “objective” yardstick. That is why I suppose it is somehow confusing to call it “argumentation ethics”. Hoppe deals perfectly with the logical bridge between the ought statements and the is statements. He construct the is-statement that property rights are presupposed in every human action. In this way he challenges those who argue for the initiation of violence, because they make argument the inevitable disproof of whose content is the very act of making the proposition.

Mr. Catalan, if praxeology is your strong side, you can not not understand Hoppe’s reasoning in the link I gave you above. To deny Hoppe’s logic is to deny the entire Mises reasoning about economics.

Jonathan M.F. Catalán September 3, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Um, then how is your comment relevant to what I said? I’m talking about morality, not the rationale behind the establishment of property rights (as a means of resolving conflict). You just admitted that Hoppe’s theory is not a moral one.

Ivan Georgiev September 4, 2011 at 9:36 am

Hoppe’s argument refers to the morality of action. (Every other notion of morality that is disconnected from human action is invalid (for example, what is morally right is what the toughest guy says it is – this would simply be might-makes-it-right and the toughest guy’s whims), because it will not rely on the concept of property rights.)
From the concept of property rights we can deduce which actions are moral and which are not. No one can make a valid proposition regarding the initiation of force as a conflict resolution action, and the only norms that regulate human action and can be argued for are the ones that do not contradict property rights. This gives rise to the conclusion that the only morally defendable action-coordination system is the one which is in harmony with property rights.

Jonathan M.F. Catalán September 4, 2011 at 11:19 am

This begs the question of whether conflict is good or bad.

sweatervest September 6, 2011 at 3:25 am

Hoppe’s theory does not directly assert an “ought” statement, it produces an “is” statement that certain ought statements are self-contradicting. As a matter of fact certain normative statements contradict themselves. The only normative statements that do not contradict themselves are those in line with a private property ethic. One demonstrates certain value judgments by arguing at all.

As a simple example, one could never state “one ought to not argue” without contradicting his own normative claim. One must violate one’s own normative prescription in order to prescribe it at all, so clearly one cannot state such a thing and really mean it. To be clear, this is not an “ought” statement but an “is” statement. All normative statements that contradict themselves are precisely those that prescribe conditions that are incompatible with the “a priori of argumentation”, that is the conditions that must be met for arguments to be possible. The condition for arguments to take place is precisely that of a private property ethic, and so because one relies on a private property ethic to justify *anything* one must equally rely on it to justify an ethic, which illustrates that the private property ethic is the only ethic that could possibly be justified.

This does not imply that one “ought” to act in ways that can be justified. It does not imply that there does not exist someone who believes one “ought” to forgo arguments entirely and rely solely on violence for interactions (because “ought” statements are, as I am interpreting them, simply expressions of value judgments). It does however show that by arguing (that is by saying one “ought” to do anything) one demonstrates one’s preference for the private property ethic, and so if one is arguing then one is stating, regardless of how ignorant the stater may be of this fact, that one ought to respect private property. If one honestly did not think one ought to respect property then one would not engage in argumentation at all. If one is arguing then one is arguing in favor of the private property ethic no matter what.

This is only confusing if one has been convinced that ethics is a value judgement. Obviously this is not the case. If ethics were a value judgment then everyone’s acts justifiably all the time because an action is a literal demonstration of one’s value judgments. There would be no problem of ethics because everyone by definition does what they want to do. Moral relativists have the burden of explaining why this thing called “ethics” has been around for thousands of years, when they are claiming there is no problem of ethics, that condemning murder is no different than expressing distaste for, say, a certain food.

There *is* a fundamental difference between those two. Liking or disliking a certain food is not incompatible with being able to state one’s like or dislike of food. Approving of murder *is* incompatible with being able to state one’s approval of murder.

Ethics is the study of what value judgments must be expressed in the course of an argument, and is therefore not a value judgment itself. That is why I prefer the terms “justifiable” and “unjustifiable” in order to distinguish them from “right” and “wrong”, which now colloquially refer to value judgments. It was understood as early as Aristotle that ethics is a rational science, as he stated that any ethic that must be violated in order to be enforced is an unacceptable ethic. Value judgments are irrelevant. An ethic is not the mode of behavior that anyone values highly, it is the mode of behavior that must be valued by someone who is arguing.

A dictator type would be very unhappy in a free society. A libertarian world is precisely one in which the efforts of aspiring dictators are entirely frustrated and their goals go entirely unrealized. One cannot claim that he would be “happy” in a libertarian society, and this is not what it means to say that only a libertarian society is ethical. What matters is that however much the dictator wants to dictate, he must at least temporarily lay down his desires in order to argue that he ought to be dictator. Obviously to the extent he tries to convince people he should be dictator he does not want to dictate at all, for that is precisely what he is *not* doing. Rather than dictate, he attempts to persuade through sound argumentation (and to be clear, shouting “I should be dictator dammit!” is not an argument!). He cannot avoid being wrong in arguing that he wants to be dictator. If he really honestly did then he would not bother with argumentation but skip straight to handing out edicts.

Hoppe is not saying that a robber is “wrong” for robbing, he is saying the robber is wrong for arguing that robbery is desirable, for he obviously disagrees with his own supposed value judgment by engaging in something that is incompatible with robbery.

Peter Surda September 6, 2011 at 3:58 am


As a simple example, one could never state “one ought to not argue” without contradicting his own normative claim.

I have a problem with this. Knowingly acting in a way contrary to one’s claims is not contradicting oneself. Rather, it’s hypocrisy. That’s not a logical error.

sweatervest September 7, 2011 at 2:21 am


Long time no see! How’s Wildberry?

Whenever I discuss this I tend to slip at times into thinking that Hoppe has derived some sort of ought statement, at the very least a value judgment for the arguer, with his argument. That infected my last post a little but, so allow me to take this chance to emphatically deny that anything involving anyone’s preferences has been derived. It is true that an arguer demonstrates a preference to argue and not be violent, but it is possible to demonstrate a preference you do not have (namely by being mistaken/confused about something).

It matters not if it is a hypocrisy. For example, the argument whose conclusion is “I cannot argue” does not imply a hypocrisy (as that concept is typically reserved for those making “ought” statements). It is a performative contradiction. One unavoidably implies “I can argue” by arguing that one cannot argue. It would be a mistake to identify this as a hypocrisy because the action contradicts the statement. Indeed that is the case, and one can use that to conclude that I am lying or confused when I say that, but that is beside the point. What matters is that one could not possibly argue that one cannot argue without implying a contradiction, and therefore the statement “I can argue” is a priori true. The point is not that the person arguing this obviously cannot believe this or is confused about it. We are not concerned with this particular person’s beliefs or state of confusion (which is the case in a hypocrisy, where one aims only to show that a person does not believe his own statements). We are only concerned with the fact that the statement implies its own negation. This is very much like the liar paradox, “This statement is false”, and in this case it happens both ways: both the liar statement and its negation imply their own negations, meaning one cannot assign a truth value to the liar statement at all. In other cases P can imply not-P, while not-P does not imply P. “One cannot argue” is a perfect example of this. The only reason to accept such a statement is because it is justified in an argument, which necessarily has a premise, stated or not, that one can argue.

When one says “I cannot argue” then one is definitely lying or confused, but that is beside the point. What only matters is that the statement implies its negation, which is how it is different from a hypocrisy. A statement such as “I prefer X to Y” can be contradicted by a later action, and in that case the person stating it is a hypocrite (which only means that he cannot believe his own claims or is confused) but it is perfectly possible to *not* contradict such a statement. That is why the truthfulness of “I prefer X to Y” depends on the situation and who the “I” is. In the case of “I cannot argue”, there is no choice. That statement must be false in every case because one *must* commit a performative contradiction, rather than just setting up the opportunity for a performative contradiction. That is the difference between a self-contradicting person (a hypocrite) and a self-contradicting proposition (which must be false a priori).

The ethics argument is categorically the same but more sophisticated. The most confusing part of it is that nowhere is any actual preference implied. Establishing the private property ethic as ultimately justified is *not* saying that anyone does or does not prefer the private property ethic to some other behavioral norm. It is never implied that “Person X prefers Y” is true a priori, no matter what X or Y are. It is true that an arguer demonstrates his preference to argue but he may stop arguing and demonstrate a very different preference later, and others may never argue and always demonstrate a different preference.

What is established as true a priori is that one could never give propositional justification to any ethic other than private property. By arguing one demonstrates a preference to rely on argumentative means to guide one’s actions, and this includes an internal argument or “thought experiment”. It thus makes no sense to rely on argumentative means to proclaim argumentative means unreliable (this does *not* mean it makes no sense to believe argumentative means are unreliable, it just means it would make no sense to use argumentation to defend that). It is very much like trying to argue that one cannot argue. By trying to argue anything, one admits the concept of “justifiability”, namely, that a claim can be established as true through argumentative means.

But to justify relies on a certain mode of action, and in this sense that mode of action is given a propositional justification. If any actions can be given propositional justification it must be precisely those actions that are compatible with any sort of justification (i.e. argumentation). The only remaining question, then, is whether *any* actions may be given propositional justification, or similarly whether it actually means something to give “propositional justification” to an action.

The answer is yes, for one is always giving propositional justification to actions by arguing. This is precisely what argumentation is. For example, to state that “2 + 2 = 4″ and to regard its content as true is precisely to give propositional justification to the action of adding two and two when four is desired (and other actions), and simultaneously denies propositional justification to others action whose end is to have four. Every argument is a propositional justification for action, as that is the only purpose of arguments. If this were not true arguments would be worthless for actors. An argument, being an action itself, would serve no end for an actor if it is not used to propositionally justify an action, in which case it would have no end and thus not be an action. That arguments are means to some end implies that all arguments serve to propositionally justify an action. One only argues in order to determine how later to act.

This is why those actions that are required in order for arguments to happen at all must be regarded as ultimately justified. In the same sense that the argument concluding that “2 + 2 = 4″ is a propositional justification of the action of adding two and two in order to get four (and many others), any argument is a propositional justification of the actions that form the a priori of argumentation, and since that exhausts the only way to give propositional justification those actions are ultimately justified.

This is why it is actually impossible to truly be a moral relativist. Proclaiming that all ethics are value judgments and there is no such as a valid ethic is an attempt, inadvertently as it may be, to assert the validity of a particular ethic, namely that *all* action is justifiable. One cannot deny one ethic, let alone all of them, without presenting an alternative one in its place. There is no argument that does not establish a propositional justification for an action, for arguments do not happen in a vacuum by non-acting agents, but are actions themselves.

My previous post put too much emphasis (i.e. any) on the fact that someone arguing against a private property ethic must be a hypocrite (that is he must at least be confused about what he believes). This may be true but it is not the point being raised. It is not so much like the person who says he hates his job but goes to it every day, but a lot more like the person who says “I don’t exist” or “I cannot argue” or “there is no such thing as truth” or “words are meaningless”. Regardless of what such a person really believes or how confused he may be, those statements are necessarily self-contradictions and thus are a priori false. Every argument is a propositional justification for some action, and arguments can never provide propositional justification for those actions that are incompatible with argumentation, which means there simply is no propositional justification for those actions.

Peter Surda September 11, 2011 at 4:07 am


It matters not if it is a hypocrisy. For example, the argument whose conclusion is “I cannot argue” does not imply a hypocrisy (as that concept is typically reserved for those making “ought” statements). It is a performative contradiction.

It’s not a contradiction, because arguing has a dual character: it is both a statement and an action. An action has a goal, a statement does not.

The point is not that the person arguing this obviously cannot believe this or is confused about it.

Now you are introducing a third aspect: beliefs.

Every argument is a propositional justification for some action, and arguments can never provide propositional justification for those actions that are incompatible with argumentation, which means there simply is no propositional justification for those actions.

But the argument itself is an action.

Gary Chartier September 3, 2011 at 9:02 pm

The dichotomy between “moral” and “consequentialist” arguments doesn’t seem very helpful to me for several reasons. (1) Consequentialism is an approach to moral theory, so it makes no more sense to distinguish moral and consequentialist arguments than it does to distinguish scientific and biological arguments. (2) Consequentialism doesn’t provide a simple, technical means to resolve social conflicts or defend institutions or policies, because (a) normative judgments need to be made regarding the desirability of particular consequences before consequentialism can get off the ground; (b) large-scale or long-term prediction is essentially impossible; (c) any plausible account of desirable ends will see them as incommensurable and non-fungible, so that full-on consequentialism actually isn’t operationalizable. (3) Pragmatic considerations (which involve consequences but need not be invoked via a commitment to global consequentialism) can enter into the determination of the content of non-consequentialist norms (e.g., the Golden Rule for the new natural law theorists).

Jonathan M.F. Catalán September 3, 2011 at 9:04 pm

(1) Consequentialism is an approach to moral theory…

I agree and is a point I raised during the seminar. To make a distinction between what is a good outcome and what is a bad outcome is still a subjective moral question. That’s why I call myself a “quasi-consequentialist”. I personally don’t try to argue for what is a better policy or how society should look like — maybe I’ll write something on this some other day, but I have a “dialectical materialist” view of libertarian progress towards an anarchic society.

Thomas Smith September 4, 2011 at 1:22 am

You write, “as someone who believes in the subjectivity of morality, I think persuasion on moral grounds will be extremely difficult, because there’s no way to objectively prove what is right or wrong”

If you would explain exactly which part(s) of The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand are incorrect I will immediately agree with you.

Tyrone Dell September 4, 2011 at 1:59 am

1. That a man is entitled to using force and coersion to prevent other people from using his intellectual labor (i.e., objectivist ethics justifying the so-called intellectual property). This idea stems from the labor theory of value, a theory completely debunked by Carl Menger.

DixieFlatline September 4, 2011 at 2:36 am


What you feel is the cloak of intellectual honesty with consequentialism is really moral cowardice.

Yes the moral argument can be debated, but just because something can be debated doesn’t mean we have to abandon a firm and fundamental position on it.

Don’t be afraid to say it is wrong to violate the life and property of another human being.

A better argument to make to your father might have been that your ethical system (or the one you will hopefully embrace conflict free) is the only consistent social philosophy of peace, tolerance and prosperity because it is firmly rooted in sound economic ideas and rational thinking.

David C September 4, 2011 at 7:29 am

I think diverting from the moral argument has risks. We can see it when the socialists hold up the “European Model” as an role model for health care. Think about Social Security, think about NASA, even public education. The statist program always appears to work in the short term. The statist reasoning always appears to make things more efficient, like how it was claimed that communism would remove the waste of redundant factories in the system. Moving away from the moral argument changes the reasoning approach, to a distraction game. Liberty isn’t a means, it is an ends. It is the way society resolves conflicts without attacking each other.

Michael Paulus September 4, 2011 at 8:07 am

The argument from morality is the single most effective tool libertarians have. If you check out Stefan Molyneux at http://feeds.feedburner.com/FreedomainRadio and listen to podcast #7 it is all there for you. The main gist is that we are non-coercive, so long as non-libertarians are using the threat of violence to accomplish whatever their stated goals happen to be they cede the moral high ground to us.

feudalredux September 4, 2011 at 9:32 am

I believe you have never met Eric Cartman. I am quite close to a real-life Cartman who strongly believes that a judicious application of force is fine so long as one gets away with it. Sort of like saying that “survival of the fittest” is a natural law, so application of force is OK so long as there is not adequate resistance from those being oppressed.

Therefore, your (and Molyneux’s) argument is essentially assuming the conclusion by assuming implicitly that we all believe that non-coercion is good. And hence that argument is very weak in reality, because it is not really much of an argument.

The bottomline is that a free society does not exist unless the individuals it is composed of fight for and defend their natural rights.

Gil September 4, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Or better yet – the freedom-seekers will only be free when they are stronger than those who would dare to take it from them.

nate-m September 5, 2011 at 9:43 am

If you want to follow that philosophy it is going to be tough to convince people that the guy living down the street should be able to legally to maintain a arsenal of 100,000 ‘bunker busting’ bombs, attack drones, a network of spy satellites, and tactical nuclear weapons.

The best bet we have is to simply withdraw our support of the government and convince other people to do the same. The state is a parasitic creature and when it is rejected by the host it will crumble into dust. But no matter what it’s going to be painful and the economic destruction would be massive since our government is now so tightly woven into the economy.

keith dowdy September 4, 2011 at 9:40 am

Believe it or not this the first time I have heard of consequentialism and I like it. I do have a religious argument to contribute. It came to me after I read some disturbing comments from Pope Benedict XVI recently “The economy doesn’t function with market self-regulation but needs an ethical reason to work for mankind,” he told reporters traveling aboard the papal plane. “Man must be at the center of the economy, and the economy cannot be measured only by maximization of profit but rather according to the common good.”

“Benedict explored the theme more fully in his 2009 encyclical “Charity in Truth,” in which he called for a new world financial order guided by ethics, dignity and the search for the common good.” theblaze.com

In contrast to his current comments Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book Truth and Tolerance, “Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes, not divine, but Demonic.” (published in 2004)

I thought America prospered because of non-regulation and non-government interference. It was the Christian ideals of self-responsibility which made us the most wealthy and generous nation in the world. Before the American experiment regulation and central overbearing government was the only way. Thousand of years before, non-innovation and stagnation not to mention persecution were the only way. So, what I’m hearing from the Pope is we need to go back to the old ways of government go back to the socialism, communism, and fascism of the past. This new way of governing is wrong and instead of moving ahead we must devolve.
Catholics believe that Jesus Christ willingly sacrificed himself on the cross for the redemption of human sins on the behalf of all humanity. This does not guarantee salvation, because Christ gives us free will. One condition of salvation is the choice of GRACE (Gods riches at Christ’s expense) over evil. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:” (Ephesians 2:8). God has redeemed us, but it is our responsibility as individuals to justify our salvation by obeying His words of truth. The aim of this justification is to make man Christ like. “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Romans 8:9).

“The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). When one brings about a sincere choice to do the right thing through faith, hope, and charity, one receives a redeemed life receiving his own greatest achievement (fullest life), happiness and salvation. “For whoever will save his life, shall lose it: and whoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it” (Matthew 16:25 ). If this is the case, then how one lives ones life is a choice and we need this choice to receive true salvation and fulfilled life. This brings us back to the Popes own words about regulation and new world financial order. If one condition of redemption is brought about by the individuals choice of obeying Gods words to receive salvation and a fulfilled life; than a completely deregulated choice driven economy is wanted.

P.S. Thanks for all the free books on this website.

Soonerliberty September 4, 2011 at 9:51 am

Appealing to morality is definitely a difficult task, and it also depends upon who the conversation partner is. With a leftist, the libertarian must appeal to the leftist’s intentions, which I must admit are normally in the right place, because the leftist feels you are attacking his intentions when you point out the perversions it unleashes on society. You must make it known to him that you accept his intentions as valid, but you have to show that you want the same. The leftist wants to help poor people, so it is the task of the libertarian to show that a freer society does exactly that. The main difference between the libertarian and the leftist is that the leftist believes “we” should take care of the poor, while the libertarian believes “I” should take care of the poor. In the end, we have the same goals, we just have to convince them that the proper way to handle charity is individually and not through massive, coercive redistribution schemes (which economic evidence also supports). The problem with convincing the leftist is that they imagine libertarians are all Randians. You have to point out that a large portion of us believe that charity is a great thing, perhaps even morally obligatory, but being morally obligatory does not mean legally obligatory. This is a nuanced position. However, I’ve had a lot of luck laying out the libertarian position to Europeans. The leftist simply needs to see that you really do care. Getting rid of the Randian label is just as difficult as shedding the negative connotations capitalism invokes.

With the rightist, you simply have to appeal to their sense of personal responsibility. It is not as difficult a task when it comes to economics, but it is a disaster when it comes to regulating morality.

David Gordon September 4, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Why do you think that morality is subjective? Is the judgment that slavery is wrong merely an expression of opinion? Our considered moral judgments do not appear to us to be matters of choice, which we might or might not accept. To the contrary, don’t they strike us as recognition of moral facts? Why should we think that this appearance is false, so that it’s “really” just a matter of mere opinion that slavery is wrong? I don’t think there are good reasons to detach ourselves from our own moral judgments, as moral subjectivism mandates. The discussion of these matters in Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, is very useful on this point.

If the judgment that slavery is wrong and other similar moral judgments are true in a perfectly ordinary sense, then we can consider the implications of these judgments for politics, along the lines pursued by Murray Rothbard in Ethics of Liberty. By doing so, I think a powerful moral case for libertarianism is available.

Jonathan M.F. Catalán September 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Isn’t whether slavery good or bad not a matter of opinion? Surely, there were many people (including slave owners) that didn’t think enslaving blacks was morally wrong. What makes slavery objectively bad?

I agree that if you think that slavery is wrong you shouldn’t detach yourself from your moral compass, but my point is that not everyone shares the same moral compass. On some issues it’s not as black and white as slavery, where most people today think slavery is “bad” — not everyone agrees that government aggression is “bad”, for example.

David Gordon September 4, 2011 at 3:08 pm

People disagree on all sorts of things, e.g., whether God exists, whether socialist calculation is impossible, whether moral judgments are subjective, etc.; but it does not follow from the fact of disagreement that there is no truth about these matters. I suspect that you think otherwise because you are in the grip of a questionable assumption, shown in your question, “what makes slavery objectively bad?” The assumption that I think underlies your question is that if slavery is objectively bad, then there must be something else from which it follows that slavery is objectively bad. This seems to be mistaken: I think it is given to us directly that it is wrong. A judgment about a moral fact does not become subjective because others fail to accept it.
You are entirely correct that some people don’t think that government aggression is bad. But if these people think slavery is wrong, we can attempt to draw analogies between slavery and government aggression to induce them to change their view of government aggression.

Tyrone Dell September 4, 2011 at 4:18 pm

>People disagree on all sorts of things, e.g., whether God exists, whether socialist calculation is impossible, whether moral judgments are subjective, etc.; but it does not follow from the fact of disagreement that there is no truth about these matters.

Sure, but if you have no means to find out this ultimate truth then the entire thing is moot and so you run into moral subjectivism all over again. Really, you might as well just submit to moral subjectivity because you’ll never know if what you think is objectively true is “really” true or not.

Or, you could just embrace moral subjectivity and attack slavery from an entirely different direction. This is, I think, the most sound scenario.

Consider this thought experiment:
At one point there was a certain sect of Christianity which believed that black people were the offspring of devils. The only way for blacks to enter the glory of paradise was if white people (pure people) enslaved the blacks.
So what happens now is that a white person, out of the goodness of his heart and out of recognizing what direction his moral compass is pointing towards decides that the best thing to do is enslave as many black people as possible since through their slavery they will cleanse the blacks so that they will be purified to enter into the kingdom of God.

To convince him that enslaving blacks is wrong is to convince him that his religion and God is wrong. Good luck with that.

Matthew Swaringen September 4, 2011 at 5:07 pm

You don’t have to necessarily prove that God is wrong, but that his interpretation of scripture is wrong. This isn’t easy to do but it isn’t necessarily impossible. You would have to show how his interpretational methodology was internally contradictory, which could probably be done with a weird belief like that, but unfortunately most people with that mindset are probably notinterested in thinking through everything logically.

sweatervest September 8, 2011 at 12:43 am

“Sure, but if you have no means to find out this ultimate truth then the entire thing is moot and so you run into moral subjectivism all over again.”

Ignorance does not imply non-existence of an answer. The claim “I know the truth value of P” is very different from the claim “P has no truth value”. At most you are admitting that there is an objective ethic but no one will ever identify it. That is *not* moral subjectivism, which claims that there is no such thing as an objective ethic. Admitting you do not and can never know what is right and wrong is different from stating that there is no objective right and wrong.

But even if one took this position it would be incorrect as well. To point out something that I think should be mentioned far more emphatically in these discussions, the central thesis of moral subjectivity has never been given substantial support. I have never had explained to me why there is no such thing as an objective good and bad. I have only been reminded that people have value judgments about things actions that are the subject of ethical study. It is very much like the modern monist position that humans are just really complex machines. When I ask for justification I get nothing at all, I only have explained what the implications of such axioms are. I never get an explanation for why they are axioms in the first place.

To be sure, the burden of proof for moral relativism is on the moral relativists, and even if they do defeat every attempted proof of moral objectivism they do not affirm relativism in the process.

“Really, you might as well just submit to moral subjectivity because you’ll never know if what you think is objectively true is “really” true or not.”

Well, if you are consistent with your own claim then you would admit this is nothing but your own value judgment so an appropriate response may be “so what”? Surely you don’t think your mere value judgments are important enough to be mentioned in the course of this argument, which suggests to me that you are momentarily slipping away from your own framework and admitting that such a suggestion is more than just a value judgment.

“Or, you could just embrace moral subjectivity and attack slavery from an entirely different direction. This is, I think, the most sound scenario.”

But it’s not an attack at all! Is it an attack on the color blue for me prefer red? Being a moral relativist is literally admitting that slavery *cannot* be attacked, it may only be disliked.

Your thought experiment confirms my initial complaint, which is that all that can ever be mustered up to support moral relativism is a run-through of what moral relativism implies. You are assuming from the outset that “right” and “wrong” may only apply to value judgments, and then assure us that changing a person’s value judgments is very difficult, and nearly impossible when it comes to their faith.

You are answering a manifestly different question. “What is the easiest way to convince someone of X” is not the same as “How can I prove X”? In fact, again it seems you are relying on *not* being a moral relativist by admitting that consequentialism is a better means. A better means to do *what*? The only answer I can think of is to convince people of something that is worth of being convinced of. Otherwise, you would have to continue with your relativism and ask, “why is it worth anything to convince anyone that slavery is bad”?

It seems to me that engaging in an ethical debate at all, which one must do to assert one’s position of moral relativism, one is admitting that there is something to be debated, instead of just being disagreements (i.e. different value judgments). If one truly was a moral relativist then wouldn’t one admit that one’s own proclamation of moral relativism is a mere matter of opinion and of no consequence for any argument?

Gil September 4, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Or – it depend what you define as slavery? Debt slavery is a form of slavery yet breaks no Libertarian laws. Similarly, serving time in prison is a form of slavery.

Anthony September 5, 2011 at 12:21 am


Have you read anything Rothbard wrote about inalienable rights?

“Debt slavery” is not a necessary part of a libertarian society if you believe as Rothbard did that a person cannot contract away their inalienable right to their person. Thus a debtor might have his wages garnished until his debt is paid off or he dies, but his creditor would not have the right to lock him up of force him to labor in a certain way. It would be up to the courts to work out the specifics…

As for serving time in prison, the only just cause for imprisoning someone is if they committed acts of aggression against someone, thereby essentially forfeiting their right to freedom from aggression.

sweatervest September 8, 2011 at 1:46 am

“Isn’t whether slavery good or bad not a matter of opinion? Surely, there were many people (including slave owners) that didn’t think enslaving blacks was morally wrong.”

But you must admit that this is no reason to even suspect your first statement. Would this line of reasoning not work equally well with any problem? There were many people who believed the earth was flat, and yet we don’t take this to even suggest that the Earth has no shape.

“What makes slavery objectively bad?”

I think the confusion arises here from imprecise language. What exactly do you mean by “bad”? If you use that word only to refer to a value judgment, which is to say that “slavery is bad” literally and only means “I prefer something else to slavery”, then your complaint is trivially true: such statements are matters of opinion. But all this is saying is that matters of opinion are in fact matters of opinion.

But that is not what “bad” in the ethical sense means, and I prefer the term “unjustifiable”. It is not a matter of opinion what actions must be avoided in order to allow arguments to take place. It is not a matter of opinion that for an interaction to count as “cooperative” a certain behavioral norm must be assumed by the involved actors. There are certain preconditions that must be met for arguments to happen, and if “bad” means incompatible with argumentation then it is not a matter of opinion for something to be “bad”.

The moral relativist always assumes his own conclusion, which is that proclaiming an action “good” or “bad” is to make a value judgment. “Good” means consistent with the preconditions of argumentation. The relativist begins with the assumption that ethics concerns value judgments and then derives that very assumption. It makes no sense to try to argumentatively justify those actions that would force arguments to end. It makes no sense to justify that which makes justification impossible. The relativist seems to deny that justifying an action means anything, but what is one doing by arguing other than providing some reason, some justification, to act a certain way? Ethics is concerned with what actions must be regarded as ultimately justified, in all cases and circumstances and assuming nothing further.

It is impossible to convince someone to be your slave. It makes no sense to say someone agrees to be your slave. All arguments are to the effect of reaching an agreement, and there is no such thing as reaching an agreement to be anyone’s slave. You are necessarily working outside the realm of agreement by enslaving. Thus it makes no sense to attempt to work within the realm of agreement in order to enslave. There is no argument in favor of slavery. There is only giving up on arguments and enslaving instead.

To ask “but how does that imply slavery is bad” is simply to invoke the unsupported relativist assumption again, namely that “X is bad” refers to a value judgment. The above insight alone is all that the moral objectivist aims to prove. He cares not what anyone’s preferences are, and is certainly not in the middle of arguing with people about their preferences. He is simply pointing out what nonsense it is to make use of cooperation in order to condemn cooperation and advocate violence.

“I agree that if you think that slavery is wrong you shouldn’t detach yourself from your moral compass, but my point is that not everyone shares the same moral compass”

Is that really the point? Because no one denies that. It is a very different point to say that a person’s “moral compass” is all that can be said about ethics. Also, phrasing it that way is already working within the relativist framework. A moral objectivist always claims that what is justified or not is utterly detached from and independent of any preferences any person has, and so it wouldn’t even be accurate to refer to a person’s preferences as a “moral compass”, any more than it would be accurate to refer to a person’s preferences as a real magnetic compass. A compass points a certain way no matter what you believe, and especially no matter where you want it to point.

“…as black and white as slavery…”

At the risk of getting hounded for political incorrectness, that’s a funny way to put that.

R Lee September 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm

When one considers the range of so-called “objective” morality over time and place, how can he possibly consider morality anything but subjective? Neither is there anything in natural law to support such an absurd presumption; on the contrary all organisms live by the death and destruction of other organisms.

And what is the goal of all this so-called morality? If one picks any point of pre-civilization(used loosely) before all these ideas of “morality” and considers the population, then compares it with population now, surely one must admit the totally amount of misery must have vastly increased. Certainly a relative few have had better lives than they would have had under “tooth and claw”. But for how many billions of others has “morality”, in it’s various manifestations, brought only the most abject horror? As always the strong thrive and the weak perish; nothing has changed but the amount of grief.

sweatervest September 8, 2011 at 8:03 pm

“When one considers the range of so-called “objective” morality over time and place, how can he possibly consider morality anything but subjective?”

The very same reasoning can be applied to all areas of science, whose conclusions have been shifting throughout time and places. Beyond that, you need only mention that many people disagree at a particular time and place what the popular science of that time and place states. People disagree on the reality of anthropogenic global warming, and I don’t think that implies that whether or not AGW is happening is a matter of opinion.

“Neither is there anything in natural law to support such an absurd presumption”

Oh but there is. There is a certain nature to argumentation, and so it is a part of natural law to delineate what modes of behavior are compatible with argumentation. As I have explained in other posts, it is nonsense to justify (as can only be done with an argument) that which makes justification impossible.

“on the contrary all organisms live by the death and destruction of other organisms.”

And in saying this you prove my point, namely that there are objective measures of morality. Otherwise this insight could not possibly imply what you want it to, i.e. that nature is immoral. It would only mean that you, or somebody (perhaps the moral objectivist) has a different “moral compass” than most natural organisms. The only way this conflicts with moral objectivity is if you assume the validity of moral objectivity.

“And what is the goal of all this so-called morality?”

To explain and better understand the nature of things, as is always the case. It is not a matter of opinion what interactions are mutually beneficial and thus are capable of resolving conflicts, and what interactions are not and generate conflicts. To be clear, I am not relying on conflicts being “objectively bad” in the sense that no one prefers conflicts nor do I have any interest in deriving such a result, which is impossible to derive (it would be an “ought” from an “is”). I am only arguing that certain modes of behavior unavoidably lead to conflicts, and that has always been the purpose of ethics. This mode of behavior is the only one that may be given propositional justification, for justification itself relies on that mode of behavior.

“If one picks any point of pre-civilization(used loosely) before all these ideas of “morality””

How are you so sure morality is a new concept?

“and considers the population, then compares it with population now, surely one must admit the totally amount of misery must have vastly increased”

I surely don’t admit that for it is utterly absurd. First of all, only with modern technology could anywhere close to 7 billion people survive on this planet. The vast majority of people alive now would not be better off living far in the past no matter how many hardships they endure: they’d starve to death in no time at the very least. Second of all, what things must people endure now they did not have to endure in the past? It sounds like you’re putting on the rose colored glasses before looking into the past.

Besides, all of this is moot because, unlike ethics, suffering *is* subjective, and you have no basis for saying people today suffer more than they did in the past. Those living now are not the same people as those living in the past and there is no way to rank the preferences of different actors relative to each other.

“Certainly a relative few have had better lives than they would have had under “tooth and claw”. But for how many billions of others has “morality”, in it’s various manifestations, brought only the most abject horror?”

I don’t see how. To be sure, only these people themselves can decide this, but I at least personally would choose being poor today than being anything less than royalty a thousand years ago. Poor is always a relative thing, and in some parts of the world today what goes for “poor” would be regarded as upper class for the wealthiest part of the world even a few hundred years ago.

“As always the strong thrive and the weak perish; nothing has changed but the amount of grief.”

But how does this impact ethics? If you are truly a moral relativist then would this not be a mere statement of fact with no further significance (like saying “the sky is cloudy”)? You seem to be using this to imply something further, like that it is immoral for the strong to survive and the weak to perish, or it would be moral to lessen grief.

Are you not trying to say, “There is no objective morality because the world is objectively immoral”? If you are just saying, “There is no objectively morality because I prefer a different history to the real one” then it would be wrong for, as everyone agrees, preferences have no impact on objective matters.

“One ought to act ethically” is an ought statement. “This act is ethical” is an “is” statement.

sweatervest September 8, 2011 at 8:08 pm

“I am only arguing that certain modes of behavior unavoidably lead to conflicts, and that has always been the purpose of ethics. This mode of behavior is the only one that may be given propositional justification, for justification itself relies on that mode of behavior.”

Haha whoops I used a pronoun with no antecedent. Take two: “The mode of behavior that resolves conflicts is the only one that may be given propositional justification, for justification itself is a conflict-resolving behavior.”

R Lee September 9, 2011 at 6:44 pm


You torture reason to a point unconscionable, then follow it into a blind maze from which nothing connected to reality can escape. Argument from that position is meaningless. Try to keep your feet on solid ground and away from mazes.

sweatervest September 9, 2011 at 7:18 pm

R Lee,

I am disappointed to get a “you’re crazy” response instead of an actual counter-argument.

To be sure, you haven’t even attempted to counter-argue anything I said. Cute metaphors, though.

sweatervest September 9, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Request for clarification: argument from what position is meaningless?

R Lee September 9, 2011 at 8:50 pm


Essentially any position which cannot be reduced to a simple objective one and unanimously accepted by any group of rational people. When, for example, I say that all or nearly all organisms, depend on the death and destruction of other organisms, that is so easily observed it’s hardly debatable; it’s a simple fact. Following, it is obvious an organism must depend so to survive. To imagine up a “morality” about whether it’s right or wrong is obviously absurd; it’s like arguing the morality of gravity; it’s simply what is.

My concept of science is that it’s truths are always temporary. Ideally to gain acceptance they must meet rigorous challenges at objective levels. Morality, on the other hand, having been created from imagination, can find objective conformation nowhere else. And whereas science is constantly evolving and the process is considered proper, moralists_even in the face of conflicting fact_most always consider Their Morality eternal and changeless while all others are wrong.

I want to make it clear that by no means am I advocating that we should all just start killing and robbing each other. What I would like to see is first just simple acceptance of the reality that we are, at necessity of surviving, selfish creatures. Then the debate becomes, with very different outcomes, I think, not what is “right or wrong”, but what course of action best Truly serves our selfish interests.

sweatervest September 10, 2011 at 3:55 pm

“Essentially any position which cannot be reduced to a simple objective one and unanimously accepted by any group of rational people”

Like actions that are necessarily disagreed on (i.e. violence, because the victim by definition does not agree to it)?

“When, for example, I say that all or nearly all organisms, depend on the death and destruction of other organisms, that is so easily observed it’s hardly debatable”

Who’s debating that? That’s like denying that gravity exists because planes fly.

“Following, it is obvious an organism must depend so to survive”

Obviously not, for 99% of the interactions among humans are non-violent and that has proven wildly more successful than violence. Cooperation and the result of civilization has worked far better than remaining violent tribes.

“To imagine up a “morality” about whether it’s right or wrong is obviously absurd; it’s like arguing the morality of gravity; it’s simply what is”

That is circular reasoning. You are assuming that morality is subjective, that it is a value judgment, that “right” and “wrong” in this context means “preferred” and “not preferred”, and then concluding that there is no objective morality. When you speak of the “morality of gravity” you support my assertion that you have assumed outright that “morality” has something to do with a value judgment.

“My concept of science is that it’s truths are always temporary.”

That is immediately contradictory, for you apparently take this statement to be a permanent truth, or else it would be irrelevant because it might become false in a few minutes.

“Morality, on the other hand, having been created from imagination”

What does that mean? What point are you trying to make about ethics? That some actions that are incompatible with argumentation is not imagined in the sense that it is made up/fictional.

“can find objective conformation nowhere else”

What does objective confirmation mean? The thing you are trying to confirm is a claim about the connection between observations, and one cannot observe connections between observations.

“And whereas science is constantly evolving and the process is considered proper, moralists_even in the face of conflicting fact_”

It’s not conflicting! How does the statement that certain actions cannot be justified with an argument imply that no actors ever engage in those actions?

“most always consider Their Morality eternal and changeless while all others are wrong.”

Kind of like how people think 2 + 2 = 4 and all other answers are wrong, or that the Earth is definitely round and all other shapes are wrong.

To be clear, if morality refers to a personal code of conduct then you are mischaracterizing a moral objectivist. The only goal of a science of ethics is to establish that certain actions cannot possibly be given propositional justification. If you wonder why that matters, it is because there are many times when people do try to give propositional justification to those actions, and ethics establishes such arguments as invariably wrong, much like math establishes any argument whose conclusion is 2 + 2 = 5 as wrong.

“I want to make it clear that by no means am I advocating that we should all just start killing and robbing each other”

Might there be any reason beyond your mere preferences for you to choose such things to assure me you do not advocate? Why be clear you do not advocate killing and robbing, instead of maybe jumping off a cliff or turning the oven on and jumping in, which I assume you would also not advocate? What is giving killing and robbing more urgency to mention?

“What I would like to see is first just simple acceptance of the reality that we are, at necessity of surviving, selfish creatures”

I am not rejecting reality. I must admit I find this type of objections very confusing. Obviously I do not think that nature has been nothing but peaceful, non-violent interaction. In fact, I think ethics explains *why* non-human nature can *never* be non-violent (entities of non-human nature cannot argue, they cannot reach agreements, and therefore cannot cooperate in the sense that humans do).

If I thought everything acted ethically, why in the world would I debate about ethics? There would be no need to do such a thing. If all action was justifiable there would be no ethical problems to consider.

Also, I don’t understand why a moral objectivist is forced to deem “selfishness” as unjustifiable. Again this is a big misunderstanding of the nature of action. All action is “selfish” in the sense that it aims for the improvement of the actor’s own situation. Any other type of action is inconceivable. Where is the distinction? How is giving to a charity less “selfish” or more altruistic than working at a job? Both actions are undertaken only because of the improvement that the actor himself experiences, be it psychological satisfaction for “helping others” or getting paid. Also, both actions result in improvements for other actors. That is what makes charity desirable for actors, and it is also where the money paying a worker comes from.

In what sense are people so “selfish” in the pejorative sense of valuing the well-being of surrounding people relatively lowly? What evidence is there to show this? The very fact you are pointing to the dismal conditions of nature proves you wrong. I’ve never see any other animal care so much about the state of nature than what you, a human, have demonstrated. Humans are the only creatures in the known history of life that has cared at all about other species, or even so much for other members of their own species. Humans have perfected cooperation like no other creatures have. Where is this “selfish” charge coming from? Relative to what, angels?

“Then the debate becomes, with very different outcomes, I think, not what is “right or wrong”, but what course of action best Truly serves our selfish interests.”

And what happens when the course of action that best serves my interest prevents you from doing the course of action that best serves your interests? This condition alone does not get one to an answer, it is not a means to determine the best course of action, no matter what the ends of the actors are (unless they do not experience conflicts which means they do not interact and thus no ethical problems could possibly arise). It would make no sense to justify having any end (and thus acting towards it) because that justification contradicts itself when the ends of multiple actors are in conflict.

If a justification is not going to contradict itself then it must be restricted to those actions that can possibly coexist.

dennis the menace September 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm

It amazes me when the government places restriction on liberty very slowly how few their are that even notice.

Garth September 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Very interesting post and question. I have been having similar debates with my father for the past 30 years or so. However, since I have had only limited success, my advice should be taken with a grain of salt.

Whenever I have been accused by my father of lacking sympathy for those less fortunate, I immediately turn the accusation back to him on both consequentialist and moral grounds. First of all, I try to point out logically that by my father’s own view of morality his approach will lead to worse consequences then my approach. Next, I dispute his moral assumptions altogether.

Statists have a propensity to believe that they are morally superior. They also tend to use their sense of moral superiority to dismiss out of hand any argument against their position without actually addressing the argument itself. That is why I believe that it is important to always turn the argument around and accuse the accuser of lacking sympathy himself. It forces him to start addressing the issues and take away his sense of superiority.

While I have not yet converted my father to libertarianism, he no longer accuses me of lacking sympathy and will accept some of the points I make as valid.

fundamentalist September 5, 2011 at 9:15 am

It’s difficult to discuss this subject with relatives you want to remain some kind of relationship with. I have relatives who are socialist. I’m sorry. I can’t lie and call the liberal or progressive and I sometimes tell them that if they want to discuss the topic then they’ll have to accept that I will call them socialists. That usually leads into a discussion of what socialism is and demonstrates their complete ignorance of the topic. I often stay away from the topic with relatives because if I treated them as they treat me in such discussions they would never speak to me again. They take advantage of my desire to remain in touch with them because I love them.

When a person tells you that you lack “sympathy for those less fortunate”, they are being rude. Of course, fathers have earned a little leeway in that respect, but they’re still rude. They would be very indignant if you were as rude to them. I have noticed that socialists often take advantage of our desire to remain on good terms with them. Such statements judge your motives as if the rude person also had the power of God to look into your heart, which they don’t have so it’s also partly blasphemous.

Lately I have been taking your approach, though. If they want to be rude, I am rude right back at them. Then when they are deeply offended I ask them why they didn’t worry that their rude comments would offend me. You have to have a very close relationship with a person you are that honest with, though.

The truth is that socialists do not care for the less fortunate at all. They’re hypocrites of the worst kind. They use the poor to grab power.

If socialists cared about the poor, they would study economics and economic history to find the best way to help the poor. They would find that free markets with private property rights, not charity, lifted Western Europe and the US out of starvation. Limited free markets have lifted over 400 million from starvation in India and China over the past generation with almost no help from charity or forced redistribution at all. That is very close to a miracle! But don’t be surprised to find that socialists simply do not care.

At the same time, history has proven that socialism in all forms does nothing but impoverish everyone. Their dirty little secret is that socialists don’t care. They don’t want to lift the poor; they want to destroy the wealthy. They admire places like Cuba and N. Korea for their equality in poverty. They admire European socialism even though their poor are far worse off than the poor in the US. They simply don’t care because they don’t care about the poor.

So if you want to show me your concern for the poor, show me how much you know about the economics of poverty. Don’t just tell me how much you care. Show me something.

But keep in mind the “pearls before swine” principle. Once someone shows that they will never question their socialist assumptions under any circumstances, you’re wasting your time discussing it with them. You can’t convert everyone, only those who are willing to listen and reconsider. With some relatives I don’t respond to their rude comments at all; I either change the subject or leave the room.

Not all people care about the truth. Jesus said of the Gospel that the road is narrow and few people find it. Paul wrote in Romans that people know the truth but suppress it because they don’t like what it says. But that doesn’t just apply to the gospel. Most people can’t handle the truth. Reality is too harsh for them. They prefer to live in a dream.

Socialists are that way. They cling to the illusion that all would be perfect in the world if only all of the wealth was perfectly distributed. That’s a very childish fantasy, but socialists love it. No one can convert people who prefer fantasy to reality. You have to wait for them to be mugged by reality. Then, sometimes, they open their minds a little.

JAlanKatz September 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I tend to think that there is no contradiction here. We need both moral and consequentialist approaches (yes, I recognize Gary’s point, but by moral here I mean other approaches to morality.) We need a moral approach to speak of theory. We use morality to explain why we prefer the society we prefer. We use consequences to explain the society we live in today. For instance, if a liberal maintains that we need government redistribution in order to take care of the poor, I do not argue with him morally, but point to the existence of the untaken-care-of poor today. Further, I explain to him that, in fact, government redistribution is largely the other way, and that he can best advance his desired goals by ending government. I could not make a moral appeal to, say, the right to property, when so much of the property of the rich is stolen to begin with.

Cain September 4, 2011 at 4:09 pm

I would like to see how many so-called capable people (the strong), would hold up in a truly free, non-statist 100% private society where respect of life & private property is the hinge-pin. You know where you can’t be worthless paper-pushing bureaucrat, and have to work and produce or give service (whatever the market dictates).

When debating a statist, I guess you can use the “Gun & a Badge” Gary North approach to somebody being generous and kind with other’s property. Ask them where does their morality get it’s orders. From a blurred bureuarcracy, that is held together with paper money. Ask the generous statists, what has he done to create more for the masses, not just hide behind crap-loads of bureaucratic paperwork, mandates, and a sweet above market wage/salary paycheck and pension.

Most of these folks have found a racket and cushion, with the advent of statism the last two centuries.

R Lee September 4, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Situations change, Cain. Today’s strong may well be tomorrow’s weak. One more good reason not to restrict the individual with mythical “moral” rules. Unless, of course, you think they can make you relatively strong. Of course that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it_people making rules for their own benefit.

Dagnytg September 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm

R Lee,

I see you have returned with your version of Social Darwinism.

I thought, since my last discussion with you on this point, your thinking would have evolved but apparently not. You still wish to equate human action with that of insects, small rodents and reptiles. Your might makes right morality, though appealing to the simple minded, has no merit.

The success of humanity is based on cooperation. Cooperation is derived from the ethical foundation of property rights and non-aggression.

R Lee September 4, 2011 at 10:03 pm


I see your intellectual development has still not come up to the level of an honest, self-serving insect. Maybe if you stayed off the hard stuff….

Dagnytg September 4, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Oh come on Lee…you can do better than that.

Attack the last sentence of my comment…I left it hanging out there for you.

I didn’t know insects could be honest or dishonest much less self-serving…I figured they’re programmed to do what they do. However, if you’ve had conversations with these critters…by all means, enlighten me.

R Lee September 5, 2011 at 2:10 am


Grow up and give it up. There is no Santa and your liberal ideas lie scattered in the wreckage of crumbling factories, filthy, crime-ridden cities, schools turned into prisons, resources becoming ever more scarce in the face of explosive population growth, world economy in free-fall, and real freedom become a near forgotten thought remembered only in nightmares.

It’s really easy. Just put aside the books written by people who understand nothing but what they read in other books, open your eyes, and take a look around for yourself. The truth is everywhere.

Dagnytg September 6, 2011 at 5:07 am

R Lee,

I am a street libertarian… (Not a book libertarian as you imply in your last paragraph.) When I decided to embrace freedom (verses equality) as my philosophy of life, it was a conscious and self-contemplated decision. At that time, there was no internet, books, or mentors.

Much like Nathan (below) I understood the ethics of property rights and non-aggression before I understood anything else. (If you embrace freedom as a life philosophy, the ethics are self-evident.) I spent most of my life living extreme; filtering my experiences through the prism of libertarian ethics. All the while constantly testing and challenging my libertarian beliefs. I wasn’t sure they would stand the test of time and wondered if one day I would abandon libertarianism much like my cousins, who were 15-20 years my senior, had abandoned communism.

I spent seven years of my life living in one of those “filthy crime ridden cities”. Even my black friends thought I was crazy. Yes, Lee, I saw violence and had to deal with violence on occasion. Nevertheless, what I remember is how the vast majority of people survived and thrived through cooperation in spite of the dire conditions.

“Schools turned into prisons”…been there too and even though I currently teach classes where many of my students choose to attend, some are forced to take the class through the courts, welfare system, or the school district. Most of my students are lower middle class or poor, many immigrant and unemployed. You’d think the experience would leave me disillusioned but like my ghetto experience, it has had the opposite effect.

Lee, the examples above only scratch the surface of the subcultures and underground communities that I have been privy to in my lifetime so when you tell me to open my eyes and look around…well I have, more than most and when you say the truth is everywhere…I agree.

The truth is this: what I learned about libertarianism can’t be found in books. The ethics of property rights, non-aggression and its derivative cooperation aren’t just idealist fantasies or theories but a reality practiced every day among people from all walks of life.

sweatervest September 8, 2011 at 8:35 pm

“isn’t it people making rules for their own benefit.”

Of course it is. Well, it’s not really making rules but realizing what they must do in order to be able to make rules (meaning, then, that they become implicit rules wherever rules may be claimed to be enforced). But it is certainly for their benefit.

“One more good reason not to restrict the individual with mythical “moral” rules.”

Which means you are not restricted from restricting individuals! You are prescribing a method of restriction, namely the one that puts a stop to restrictive behavior, and therefore contradicting yourself.

Ohhh Henry September 4, 2011 at 4:12 pm

This led him, for some reason, to suggest that one of the major problems I face is my lack of sympathy for the “less fortunate.”

The counter-argument to this is that it is the poor who are given the shaft by the “caring” welfare system more than anyone else. A classic example is public schools. Because they are government monopolies they are grossly inefficient and ineffective. The upper class and upper-middle class can avoid lousy government schools by paying for private education. The poor are condemned to these schools however. No amount of money or oversight will ever make public schools work efficiently or effectively, because it is impossible for a monopoly to do so. That is just one of the ways that the poor are mistreated by socialists and so-called “liberals”.

It is the socialists and liberals who lack sympathy for the poor. The “help” they offer to the poor, if judged by its effects and not its intentions, is more like malice than sympathy. Libertarians may never have a kind word for the poor, or lift a finger to put them in schools or pay them welfare, but if they never commit aggression then they are showing far more kindness and respect to the poor than any “liberal”.

Costard September 4, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Your argument will convince no one. The left doesn’t support public education because it is efficient, but because it provides a “service” to people who could never have afforded it in the first place. That it does so is undeniable; and by avoiding the point you would appear to your opponent dishonest.

Public education is wrong not because it is inefficient, but because it is harmful. Older traditions of apprenticeship (work in exchange for education) and vocational (paid) education were torn up in order to build the top-down academic curriculum that now exists. Every year jobs become more specialized and demand more experience and localized knowledge; whereas the trend in education has been towards generalities and abstractions: an abundance of math, language and basic science, and a lack of even the rudimentary shop and home ec classes that were common in previous generations. Children who cannot afford college are being prepared only for a self-conscious poverty.

This would be a more thoughtful and convincing argument, not least because it exhibits some level of thought about the actual situation of poor children, and their real needs when faced with the challenge of raising themselves to prosperity. Sympathy is an appeal to humanity, and it must be demonstrated rather than claimed. Demonizing your opponent and refusing to look closely at the issue or the people involved is a bad start.

Ohhh Henry September 4, 2011 at 9:37 pm

You have a problem with my statement of the problem, but you seem to be saying the same thing. The school system is lousy because it teaches extremely expensive, irrelevant and time-consuming courses to the point where it is quite useless to most of the students. In other words it is inefficient and ineffective, and poor people are worse off because of it. The people who maintain the system on the other hand are much, much better off because of it.

The school system is this way because any government monopoly must be as inefficient and ineffective as possible, in order to maximize the gains to the people who work for the monopoly. They cannot get more customers by working efficiently and effectively. They cannot lose customers by working inefficiently and ineffectively. They would lose money by working efficiently, because it would reduce their budgets and headcounts. They get more money by working inefficiently, because poor results mean bigger budgets, more training, more offices, bigger headcounts, more recruitment of experts. Only a monopoly can work in this way, and only a government can maintain such a monopoly. The only way that a government can maintain such a monopoly is through violence, by threatening to imprison or kill anyone who refuses to support it.

Any human activity which is fundamentally based on violence (supported by taxes in other words) does not and cannot function for the benefit of the majority of people, but only works for the benefit of those who initiate the violence. If you think that it is “demonizing” people by pointing out the immorality and uselessness of trying to organize society on the basis of violent coercion, so be it.

Tyrone Dell September 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Objective morality undermines the idea of an omnipotent god.

The argument goes as follows:
1. Suppose there is an objective morality and suppose there is an all-powerful God.
2. God tells us that “A” is good and “B” is bad.
3. Why is “A” good and “B” bad?
4. If God were all-powerful, it would be because he defined morality as such and a consequence is that “A” be good and “B” be bad.
5. But this contradicts the assumption that there is an objective morality.

6. So instead suppose that God told us that “A” is good and “B” is bad because there is an objective morality outside of his control.
7. But now this contradicts the assumption that God is omnipotent.

You can’t have it both ways.
Either you have an all-powerful God and moral subjectivity (insofar that morality is merely subject to the whims of a God — one day God commands that “A” be good, the next day he could command that it be bad). Or you have a less-than-all-powerful God and objective morality (i.e., God has no control over morality — he is not strong enough to change the /objective fact/ that slavery is wrong, and that rape is wrong, etc.). (There are other possibilities as well — eg., athiesm, etc.).

Peter September 6, 2011 at 4:24 am

Thank you, Euthyphro

sweatervest September 8, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I am not a theist, so I may not be the best person to do this, but the all-powerful argument is a very general complaint about the traditional idea of God. As Homer Simpson put it, “could God microwave a burrito so hot that He Himself couldn’t eat it?” This impacts all laws of nature as much as it impacts ethical laws of nature. Could God add two and two and get five? How could this be? All one could see is God add two and two to get four, then pop another one into existence to get five.

I believe classical thinkers proposed solutions to this. God gave us reason as a tool to be used on our own, and if he changes the structure of reality and thus also reason as a means to understand reality, that means our very means of thinking would change and we would not be able to say that we now think differently than before, for we would reinterpret all of our memories and knowledge under the new framework of thinking. It would be like using one’s meter stick to see if one’s meter stick has shrunk.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean God has to act ethically, though I think many theists propose other means for reaching that conclusion.

Dagnytg September 4, 2011 at 6:21 pm

In the many years that I’ve been a libertarian, I find most people reject its application due to their psychological and emotional position on an issue. The consequentialist argument against Libertarianism is essentially based on fear (on a deeper level perhaps guilt). In most cases, this stems from an underlying universal fear of humanity.

Because of this emotionalism/fear, it is virtually impossible to convince someone otherwise. Most people will just shut down and stop listening due to the distress of considering an argument that challenges their strongly held emotional beliefs. (I find this to be true even among some libertarians.)

So what do we do? I think many us forget how we came to be libertarians. Since I have been blogging on this site, I am amazed at the different paths people have taken to become libertarian. Nevertheless, there is one common theme among all of us:

We all came to be libertarians through self-discovery and it is through self-discovery that others will adopt our beliefs.

The best way to enhance self-discovery is not to argue a point but to pose questions in such a way as to guide a person into reaching their own conclusions (see Socrates). It’s a benign, positive, and self-effacing approach…verses looking like a bunch of rabid, insensitive fanatics.

When it comes to family and especially parents, it helps to look at them as people…people with a history, a childhood, and numerous experiences that affect their worldview. For example, my mother told me the first twelve years of her life she knew only one president (FDR). That she and her mother would huddle in a closet to the sound of air raid sirens and cannon fire (shooting at supposed Japanese aircraft). It would be foolish of me not consider these and other experiences in understanding the psychology behind her worldview.

Anthony September 5, 2011 at 12:27 am

Well spoken, Dagnytg. It was nagging doubts left by interesting questions and answers, not aggressive argument that convinced me.

Nathan September 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm

I have always been a libertarian, even before I knew what the word meant, because of the moral argument. I have always believed that each person is completely entitled to his or her own property. Until I discovered Murray Rothbard, I thought I was the only person who thought this way. For me, the moral argument was paramount. Even if I believed that libertarianism led to less prosperity, I would still support it because I believe in maximum liberty for the individual.

The moral argument works for some; the consequentialist argument works for others. Ultimately, however, libertarianism, like every other political philosophy, must be based on morality; otherwise, if you believed that this or that aspect of liberty didn’t “work,” whatever that means, you will eventually return to statism.

Certainly, statists have no problem basing their arguments on morality. Your father, for instance, didn’t attack you with the statement that “all poor people would die in your system but with “you don’t care about the poor!” The latter is a moral argument.

No movement ever got off the ground because of utilitarian arguments. Millions of people fought for communism not because of pragmatism but because they believed it was a morally superior system. The colonists who fought the British Empire weren’t basing their revolution weren’t risking their lives for utilitarianism.

My point is that only the moral argument can galvanize people. That’s because it’s the most powerful argument and it is the correct argument.

R Lee September 4, 2011 at 8:01 pm

People fight wars because for whatever reason because they believe it’s in their best interests. Nobody ever did or ever will do “squat” for purely “moral” reasons. Look deeply enough and the selfish motivation is always, always, there.

sweatervest September 9, 2011 at 1:18 am

You seem to be suggesting that selfish motivation is immoral. But that of course would imply that there is an objective morality.

terrymac September 4, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Libertarianism will not progress far without a moral anchor, or several. Consequentialism is too slippery; it can not long restrain the forces of Public Choice Economics, which lead politicians to seek their interest, rather than the “general welfare” of the people. Politicians have long turned a deaf ear to consequentialist claims that freedom would be better than interventionism; the benefits of interventionism to the politicians are all too obvious.

In my mind, the first principle of libertarianism should not be the non-aggression principle, but the rejection of the myth of sovereignty, which says that you must submit to whatever damage the police, courts, and politicians choose to mete out just because they are the Law and you are a civilian.

How are today’s civilians, who are tased, beaten, and killed by SWAT teams, better off than those unarmed peasants who had to submit to every whim of knights and samurai in days past?

When we reject that myth of sovereignty, we make it obvious that the government is not our friend, but an abuser; that we have every right to curb its powers.

In addition to taking the moral ground, I choose to “be the change I wish to see” – I choose to live my life according to voluntaryist principles; to take responsibility for the education of myself, my children, and even my grandchildren, who are 2nd generation home-schoolers. I choose to take responsibility for defending myself and those whom I care about. I choose to take steps to build my own “safety net.” By taking similar steps, voluntaryists demonstrate that the State is superfluous at best, and often a hindrance to doing that which is good and righteous.

sweatervest September 9, 2011 at 1:23 am

Rothbard talked about how in the U.S. the Old Right always spoke in terms of consequences and feasibility, and in doing so conceded the “moral high ground” to socialists, which more or less guaranteed the long term success of socialist ideas. As soon as you give up the moral high ground feasibility arguments are merely fleeing temporary problems that may be solved in time, and consequence arguments can be easily deflected by proclaiming such consequences as moral (i.e. the destruction of wealth socialism entails merely implies that wealth is immoral).

It is an admission that the *ultimate* goal, even if it is impossible to reach and only provides the right direction in which to move, is that of socialism. It may be hard, and may be less desirable than the immoral choice (sort of how bank robber may be more appealing than working for a living), but it is the moral choice. Once that is admitted the real debate is over.

Gangrenebacks September 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm

“Less fortunate” is a political tool designed to divide people and groups and set them against each other. It has little objective meaning.

The “Less fortunate” of this country are much more “fortunate” than the poor of Nigeria or New Guinea (how about Haiti?). I’ve been to these places. Shudder.

The term is designed to make one group envious and another group feel guilty. But guilt only works if the “guilty” accepts it as guilt. Otherwise the paper tiger goes up in smoke. Then we are left with just envy, a tool used every election cycle. This is not Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average and all the government intervention in the world cannot change the normal distribution.

Cain September 4, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Well the term “Less Fortunate” is quite subjective, since the most common man now generally lived much better, longer, than the royalty, or wealthy centuries ago.

Even as a Christian logically, you cannot deny the need for stronger folks to lift up the weak, but the Bible doesn’t say as far as I know you must do this through an all-powerful collective that gets its loot at the point of a gun. I don’t remeber the collection plates having a note on them, give X amount or you will be taken out & shot.

The Power & Persuasion of the Almighty Socialist Nation State has put the pedal to the metal with much propaganda, and distortion regarding distribution of wealth among the social strata.

terrymac September 5, 2011 at 2:49 am

The poor would be better off without government schools. The “education” provided in such schools is worse than useless; it teaches only one lesson reliably: dependence upon the government. All else is subordinate to that primary mission.

In “The Beautiful Tree” and other books and reports, James Tooley shows that the poor in Africa and India – who are far worse off than those in America or Europe – nevertheless prefer parent-funded free-market schools to the “free” government schools.

Here in America, most of those who attend Catholic schools are neither wealthy nor even Catholic; they are willing to sacrifice for their children because these schools provide a better education. If we were not taxed and regulated so heavily, and if other options did not have to compete with “free”, we’d be able to afford a great variety of better and more affordable options.

Captain Anarchy September 5, 2011 at 8:25 am

I liked this.

Though I know that trying to quantify subjective values is impossible, it can be useful for convincing people who are not aware of this. A good way to try to quantify it for consequentialists is to get them to think of all the times when the government has done something “good,” and contrast that with all the times freely interacting individuals have done something “good.” It’s no contest. People may be able to find a few instances where the state has achieved something worthwhile, but compared to the constant stream of good produced by free individuals, the state’s contributions are damn near zero.

Once you get into the harms caused by each it is even more apparent. I believe that the state has caused more harm to human life in just the last 100 years than the sum of all private crime in history. Without large nation-states, the thought of wars with death tolls in the millions becomes absurd.

It can be very difficult and very frustrating to get libertarian ideas across to those who have never given them thought before, but ideas are our only weapon, so we must do our best to help people understand. The state only exists in the mind, so the only way of eliminating it is through changing minds.

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