August 24, 2012 columns

How Unique is Libertarian Morality?

A new study out on libertarian morality finds that, “compared to self-identified liberals and conservatives, libertarians showed 1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles; 2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style; and 3) lower interdependence and social relatedness.”

I’m still examining the findings, but I wanted to take a moment to raise one concern I have with the study’s methodology—a concern I find provoked by much of study co-author Jonathan Haidt’s work.

The study draws on data from YourMorals.org, “where you can learn about your own morality, ethics, and/or values, while also contributing to scientific research.” The hosted quizzes provide interesting insight into the taker’s moral views, making it a site worth visiting.

One of the first things you’ll do upon signing up is tell the system your political ideology. Are you liberal? Very liberal? Conservative? Etc. Included is an option for libertarian. This new study simply took the results of everyone who identified as libertarian and compared them to conservatives and liberals.

The trouble I see is that, when libertarians identify as libertarians and then answer questions about morality and justice, we tend to answer as libertarians. Which means, as I see it, approaching the questions a bit different than many liberals or conservatives would.

To get at what I mean, let’s take a made-up example where I’m sure libertarians will score rather differently from non-libertarians, even though they (probably) don’t mean it: Do we have a duty to help someone in immediate danger, assuming we can do so with minimal danger to ourselves?

The classic formulation of this, of course, is the drowning baby. You’re walking along when you pass a shallow stream. A baby’s lying in it, in the process of drowning. You can easily step in and pull the kid to safety, saving his life—but it’s going to mean ruining your shoes. Do you have a duty to do it?

I wager a great many libertarians, when confronted with this question—and especially after being told this is a test about morality, and probably political morality at that, because they were asked to identify their political ideology before starting—will say no. No positive duty exists to save the infant, because the infant has no right to be saved. The child has a right not to be aggressed against, true, but it has no positive right to help from third parties.

The thing is, even if this is how most libertarians will answer when they have their libertarian hat on, I’m not convinced they really mean it. Most of them, if they actually found themselves in the situation the question posits, wouldn’t hesitate to rush in and grab the baby from the water. Or, if they did hesitate, and allowed the child to drown, they’d be devastated by it. They’d be haunted by the knowledge that they let that child die and it would likely impact them every day for the rest of their lives.

In other words, they’d act just like everyone else.

What’s going on here? Framing. When the libertarian survey taker is told he’s about to answer questions about morality, and he’s been primed to think about politics, then he’s going to see every question within a political context. He’s going to assume, at some level, that the question about the drowning baby isn’t really about a drowning baby. Rather, it’s about the role of the state and, in this case, whether the state can force us to fulfill whatever positive duties we may owe to others.

Libertarians do not want a world where police and courts compel us to help each other. We see this not only as a moral wrong, but also as a law rife with ambiguity and potential for abuse. But this does not mean we think it’s okay to let babies die when saving them is as easy as stepping into a bit of water.

(I’ve taken a number of the surveys on YourMorals.org and found many of the questions to provoke just this sort of political thinking on my part. I have to assume I’m not unique on that.)

Libertarians, unlike liberals and conservatives, rarely believe that the state should get involved in every moral question. While liberals and conservatives fequently assert that if something is a clear moral wrong then the state ought to prohibit it, libertarians don’t.

The study takes this distinction to mean that libertarians simply care so much about liberty that they’re willing to sacrifice other moral concerns. While that may be true of some libertarians, I fear the authors’ methodology crowds out those for whom it is not.