May 3, 2013 columns

Libertarianism and Virtue

An introduction to virtue, the life well-lived, and the state’s role in the good life.

This next piece in my series on arguments for libertarianism looks at virtue ethics. Which presents something of a problem. Most of the ways to justify a libertarian state begin with a moral philosophy and then extend it to politics. This was the case with the last three installments on Robert Nozick. Nozick takes the idea of basic rights already familiar to most of us and asks what sort of state they allow. Similarly, consequentialist libertarianism–where I’ll likely turn next–draws on another familiar moral philosophy: what’s right is whatever produces the best results.

But unless you’ve studied moral philosophy, it’s unlikely you’ve even heard of virtue ethics. And, unless you’ve studied virtue ethics, it’s unlikely you have much of a sense of what it’s all about. This is in large part because virtue ethics looks almost nothing like other schools in its basic approach to addressing moral issues.

Which all means I probably can’t assume the kind of background knowledge I did with Nozick or I will with consequentialism. And that means first writing a post introducing virtue ethics, before moving on to what it’s all got to do with libertarianism. Before undertaking that task, however, it’s important to be clear about something. Just as “consequentialism” isn’t a single, agreed upon moral theory but rather a name for a category of theories often in disagreement, virtue ethics is a school of thought, with multiple, often conflicting forms. In what follows, I do my best to stick to the areas of agreement and paint with broad strokes, avoiding the niggling–and for now, unnecessary–details.[1]

Let’s start with the biggest difference between virtue ethics and other schools of moral philosophy. Typically, the key question of morality is “What’s the right action?” For consequentialists, the answer is whichever choice produces the best results. They’ll differ on what “results” means, though typically they’ll say it has to do with “the most happiness” or “the least pain.”

Deontologists hold that the right action is whichever conforms to proper rules or duties. While the content of those duties varies among deontologists, most libertarians align them with natural rights. Thus the morally right action is the one that doesn’t violate another person’s rights. Any action violating rights constitutes a moral wrong.

Libertarians will recognize this divide. On the consequentialist side, you have people like Ludwig von Mises and David Friedman, who argue that free markets just work better than the alternatives. On the deontological side, we find Murray Rothbard and Robert Nozick, grounding their libertarianism in fundamental human rights. Writes Nozick, “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).”

Virtue ethicists think they’re all starting with the wrong question. Rather than “What is the right action?,” we should ask “What is a good (i.e., virtuous) person?”

A good person is a person living a good life by the standards we share because of our common humanity. In other words, what’s a good life for humans is not the same as a good life for cats or a good life for tulips. We have a nature, and that nature defines the contours of the good life, just as our nature defines the contours of good nutrition.

But does this mean there’s really only one sort of good life? That we can’t reasonably disagree about what makes a life good? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that two lives, both equally good, may look rather different in their details. A good life lived by an urban business woman isn’t much like a good life lived by a member of the Amish. And clearly we don’t want to say that only the Amish live good lives or only cosmopolitan city dwellers do.

But at the same time, enormous commonalities exist between good lives of any sort. To have a good life is to be loving and be loved. It is to pursue–and one hopes, achieve–meaningful accomplishments. It is to be fair and honest and kind. No one really believes otherwise. Would any of us defend as “good” a life without love, without accomplishments? One filled with dishonesty and animosity? A life of violence and insecurity? Certainly not.

It is that sort of good life, defined in broad universals, that virtue ethics is all about. It’s the sort of life we’re talking about when we say, “He’s a good man.” We all know what that means.

The ancient greek philosopher Aristotle, whose writings inspire and inform most modern virtue ethical thinking, called this good life one of “eudaimonia.” While often translated as happiness, the term more precisely means something like “human flourishing.” Eudaimonia isn’t found in a moment but rather in a lifetime. Only at the end of our lives can we be sure we’ve achieved it, as it takes into account the life as a whole. Eudaimonia is the well-lived life. Thus we can be on the path to it even at those times when we are immediately unhappy, as those temporary bouts of displeasure can have effects that enrich and improve our lives as a whole.

Our purpose as humans is to find eudaimonia. (And this isn’t just a purpose, but a strong desire. Who, after all, wants to lead a bad life?) The way we assure our lives will be good is to possess virtues and to make choices in accord with them. In order to achieve eudaimonia–to live well–we need access to goods and we need to possess virtue.

Goods are things like food, shelter, clothing, books, health, education, and so on. Without them, we won’t have the resources necessary to let us cultivate virtue. Clearly this is one of the points by which virtue ethics can lead to libertarianism. For free markets represent the best way humanity’s found for delivering goods. Thus if goods are necessary for virtuousness, which is necessary for eudaimonia, then a system of markets will be preferable to one without.

Next, we need virtues of character. These we’re all familiar with: compassion, courage, hope, integrity, honesty, benevolence, and so on. They can be thought of as both skills and dispositions. We have to fully understand the content of the virtue, which is why virtue ethics places such emphasis on moral education. We must also be disposed to act in accord with the virtue. I may understand benevolence, but unless I’m inclined to act in accord with it, I’m not myself benevolent.

Finally, we need the virtue of practical wisdom. This is the skill of understanding what virtues apply to a situation and how to act in such a way as to manifest them. Practical wisdom is the trait of being morally wise. Without it, I may act out of a sense of benevolence, but my actions could do harm to those I intend to help, and so I won’t truly be benevolent. Thus practical wisdom is a necessary component of–or prerequisite to–all the virtues.

Thus a virtuous person is one who has learned about and fully internalized all of the virtues. They have become a key part of who he is, such that his actions are always motivated by them. And he has the practical wisdom necessary to ensure that his motivations and his actions are in line.

Really being virtuous means we don’t try to behave morality, because if we have to try–if our urges tell us to do something else–then we haven’t properly internalized the virtues. Instead, we aim to be virtuous people and, when we are, one of the results will be morally right action. Here again we see an important connection between virtue ethics and libertarianism. Virtue is a character trait, not a command. It is something we must achieve ourselves (though certainly with help from others), not something that can be forced upon us by the state. The state may provide part of the framework that enables us to achieve virtuousness, but it cannot (and so should not try to) make us virtuous.

Taking morally right actions isn’t why one cultivates virtue, of course. Rather one cultivates virtue because being virtuous is just what it means to achieve eudaimonia. The virtuous life is the good life.

With all this in mind, we can finally answer the question of moral action. To act well when faced with a moral dilemma is to do whatever a virtuous person would characteristically do in a similar situation. A fully virtuous person possesses all the virtues, as well as the practical wisdom to act well. We say “act well” instead of “right action” because virtue ethics acknowledges that not all dilemmas have a right answer. Two virtuous people, in the same circumstances, could take different actions, while both acting in accord with the virtues.

Notice that this formulation is not a recipe for acting morally but, rather, a means to evaluate the morality of an action. If presented with a moral dilemma, we shouldn’t ask, “What would a virtuous person do in this situation.” Rather, we should act in accord with what our own virtue tell us to do. Thus a person lacking virtue will not be able to behave virtuously–though he can still stumble upon the right moral action by accident.

In one sense, this means virtue ethics isn’t as clear a path to right moral action as the alternatives. You can’t just apply a rule and get a result. Rather, virtue ethics says, “Let us start by enabling people to develop kindness, honesty, prudence, caring, and so on. Then we we can trust those virtuous people to act well.” In fact, the acting well will simply be whatever choices those virtuous people make.

It’s possible to argue that much of the wisdom of consequentialism and deontology can find a place within a virtue ethical framework. A virtuous person will care about the consequences of his actions and he will act in ways that respect the autonomy of others. We cannot achieve eudaimonia by actively and consistently doing harm, nor can we achieve it by treating our fellow humans as means instead of ends.[2]

And all of this has profound implications for the state, a topic I’ll turn to next time.


  1. If you’d like to explore that detail, the entries on virtue ethics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy are perfect places to start.  ↩

  2. For more on what distinguishes virtue ethics from consequentialism and deontology, as well as what advantages it may have over both, take a look at Why Virtue Ethics is Better Than Consequentialism and Deontology at Philosophus Autodidactus.  ↩