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Mar 21, 2013

Philosophy the Right Way

Libertarian philosophy is a “big tent” and we can learn much from philosophers we may disagree with.

My general sense is that young libertarians tend to be better read in political philosophy than young progressives or conservatives. And that’s good! We ought to take that philosophical inclination—that sense of one’s self as part of an intellectual tradition—and run with it, embracing the careful study of ideas as an ongoing project.

Like any other field, really getting political philosophy demands time and effort. At Libertarianism.org, we have book lists to help you get started—or dig deeper if you already know the basics. It’s a lot of work, but immensely rewarding. Not only does a deep and broad knowledge of the theory behind various political ideologies make one better at arguing against opposing views, it also gives one a fuller appreciation for the thought of colleagues in the struggle for liberty.

One goal of Libertarianism.org is to show just how big a tent libertarianism is. No one thinker represents the libertarian view, as there is no one view. The most important writers disagree with each other on points minor and, sometimes, major. What ties them together—what makes them all libertarians—is their recognition of the primacy of liberty in the ordering of human affairs, and the limits this places on the state’s authority.

Rather often, however, I hear fans of one philosopher say that another philosopher within our tradition isn’t a libertarian. “You can’t call Nozick a libertarian, not really.” Or, “Rothbard is the only real libertarian.” Or, “If you’re an anarcho-capitalist, you’re not a libertarian.” Or, “Only anarcho-capitalists are libertarians.”

Last week, I wrote about the need to define terms. Those people are defining “libertarian” to mean only the kind of libertarianism they prefer. Now, it may well be the case that one form of libertarianism—Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism or Randian minimal statism or Hayekian classical liberalism—is ultimately better than the rest. And that’s an argument we should have. But it’s definitely not a settled one, nor is it one that should serve as pretext to condemn or ignore schools of libertarian political theory just because they aren’t in complete agreement with each other.  As Rothbard himself said, “Both the minarchists and the anarchists agree on rolling back about 99% of the state, so why not do that and then worry about the other 1% after we get it?”

In the end, even if Nozick’s particular form of libertarianism isn’t ultimately as powerful—or pure or compelling or whatever—as Rothbard’s (or the other way around), we can still learn much from reading both Rothbard and Nozick. And Locke, Hayek, Rand, Spooner, and so on.

Related, let me urge caution about philosophical certainty. If you think you’ve found a philosopher who is 100% right on every issue, it’s likely you haven’t. Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” And he’s right, at least in the sense that very nearly every question philosophers wrestle with was raised 23 centuries ago by Plato. Which means people have been arguing about these issues—and offering their answers to them—for over 2,000 years—without any truly settled.

This shouldn’t cause us to despair, of course. Philosophical thinking has progressed, becoming (generally) more sophisticated, and (generally) jettisoning the outright bad arguments of the past. What it should do is make us skeptical that any new arguments, or any arguments we happen to favor, are airtight.

Note, however, that “not being airtight” isn’t the same thing as “false.” A philosopher can be right on the whole, while getting some details wrong. And often those details aren’t necessary for the value of the overall project to hold up. By recognizing such (frequently minor) failings, we’re able to respond better to critics. We can say, “I know so-and-so’s argument for X doesn’t quite work, but that doesn’t undermine so-and-so’s broader argument, or at least it isn’t fatal.” On the other hand, not acknowledging the bad arguments made by even the best thinkers leaves us open to quick quick rebuttal: “If you can’t even see the problems with that, how can you I trust your assessment of the whole?”

That leads to what I think may be the most important thing to keep in mind while studying political philosophy: We can learn much from, and even deeply admire, thinkers with whom we ultimately disagree on important issues.

This one seems obvious to me, but from experience, some people see things differently, saying things like, “How can you say you enjoy reading philosopher so-and-so. He/she’s not a libertarian!” Or not the right kind of libertarian. Or mostly a libertarian, but holds some non-libertarian views.

As someone who enjoys reading philosophy, if I limited myself only to philosophers with whom I have no disagreements, I’d find myself with no one to read. I don’t even entirely agree with myself over time. My views have changed and will likely continue to change, even if probably not dramatically. As I write this, I’m 34 years old. It would be preposterous to think, in that short time, I’ve figured it all out.

We should never close off fields of inquiry simply because they appear to reach conclusions we find implausible or distasteful or wrong. For starters, what seems wrong to us now may in fact be right, even if the chances of it being right are astronomically small. Socrates told Gorgias, “I count being refuted a greater good. … I don’t suppose there’s anything quite so bad for a person as having false belief about the thing we’re discussing.”

We just can’t know for sure until we explore the ideas. Even if after exploring them we have good reason to reject the conclusions, we can still learn much by studying how the author arrived at them. And learning much is why we’re reading all this political philosophy in the first place.