Can we ground a libertarian political philosophy in existentialist moral anti‐​realism?

Jason Kuznicki is the editor of Cato Books and of Cato Unbound, the Cato Institute’s online journal of debate. His first book, Technology and the End of Authority: What Is Government For? (Palgrave, 2017) surveys western political theory from a libertarian perspective. Kuznicki was an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. He also contributed a chapter to’s Visions of Liberty. He earned a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005, where his work was offered both a Fulbright Fellowship and a Chateaubriand Prize.

Mathematicians report that there are at least 367 valid proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem.

The claim “for all right triangles, a2 + b2 = c2″ would seem to require only one valid proof (or disproof). When we know the statement’s truth value, the inquiry can stop. Yet the other 366 proofs don’t lose their interest, necessarily; they might demonstrate other ideas in mathematics, particularly connections among various branches of the discipline. They certainly don’t harm mathematics, and all are mutually compatible, as mathematical truths inevitably are.

In recent years a cottage industry has grown up among libertarians: It attempts, seemingly, to found libertarian social thought on as many different underlying ethical and metaphysical systems as possible. For decades, we libertarians argued about the classic two–natural rights theory on roughly an Aristotelian model, as championed by Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard; and utilitarianism, as exemplified by the Chicago School.

Today, though, we keep a menagerie of different libertarianisms. There is Rawlsean libertarianism, which argues that a libertarian society best fits Rawls’s conditions for social justice. There is libertarianism founded on evolutionary psychology, which calls on us to embrace and develop the evolved tendencies that result in property and market behavior (as well as recognizing, sometimes, certain cognitive biases that make this difficult). There is an ambitious and stimulating attempt to found property rights on game theory. There are many others, and I’ve even contributed to the mess myself, arguing that libertarianism is best founded on Kantian ethics and the categorical imperative; I believe that this was also Robert Nozick’s project, properly understood.1

Are these attempts to justify a libertarian social order analogous to the multiple proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem? Or are they different?

We should probably admit that our cottage industry has an image problem: In the absence of incontrovertible proof, we risk appearing to outsiders as though we are throwing the proverbial spaghetti against the wall. What sticks? Who knows! Meanwhile the audience grows cynical: the fact that we libertarians offer so many different justifications suggests that our real motivations are disreputable. “There are no sects among geometers,” Voltaire once sneered. Because geometers only deal with truth.

This criticism, though, would have more merit if libertarians were united and conspiratorial. In reality we are disunited and fractious. We aren’t throwing spaghetti against the wall for the simple reason that throwing spaghetti against the wall would require a coordination that we do not possess. If you don’t believe me, dear outsiders, just come to some of our gatherings, where you will find us arguing at least as vehemently against one another as we ever do against you.

Opportunities also exist for compatibilism, in which seemingly deep disagreements aren’t disagreements at all. Perhaps game theory justifications make sense to us because evolutionary psychology has tracked some good game theoretical outcomes. Or perhaps certain forms of utilitarianism actually are compatible with certain natural rights arguments, Jeremy Bentham’s famous quip notwithstanding. And so on. Maybe we can all get along, not just in the collegial sense, but on some deeper philosophical level. And if so, then adding justifications only strengthens the case for libertarianism. We might be geometers after all, or at least something like them.

Which brings me to William Irwin’s book The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism. It proposes to add still another possible foundation to libertarianism, yet from the outset it strains the limits of compatibilism. It is a bold and infuriating book.

As one might expect of an existentialist, Irwin espouses moral anti‐​realism, “the metaphysical view that there are no moral facts.” This will be hard for many different libertarian factions to accept. To the extent that this book creates new libertarians, it will probably also create deep new divisions.2

Irwin does not sugar coat or dissemble; he agrees with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous statement that God is dead: That is, there never really was an objective moral order in the universe, never a Person in the heavens looking after us, and modernity has finally made us realize it. Irwin believes that this realization has enormous, civilization‐​shaking consequences, and that we are still in the early stages of a new era, one in which we fitfully learn to appreciate the implications of Nietzsche’s aphorism. Irwin explains himself as follows:

Here is one analogical way to think about it: The fact that nearly every human being… finds the smell of dog droppings to be disgusting does not mean that dog droppings objectively smell disgusting. Rather, what the evidence tells us is that, given the senses humans have evolved, dog droppings smell bad to nearly all humans. Does that mean they smell bad objectively? Not in any objectively real or supernatural sense.

Ethics is a lot like that, Irwin claims.

Those familiar with the natural law tradition may recognize the appeal, often made by skeptics, to the supernatural: Where, skeptics often ask, is the supernatural evidence for your position? This ought to seem like a strange demand. After all, what has been promised is only natural law, and not supernatural law. And requests for supernatural evidence are not often made elsewhere. Why make that request here? I believe that my coffee mug has a real, objective existence, and I do not demand supernatural evidence for it. Natural evidence will do. And if stronger (but still natural) evidence were to appear for my coffee mug’s unreality, I would change my belief.

Might the disgustingness of dog droppings be like that? And by analogy, might we say the same of claims in ethics? Do we really need something supernatural–demons, perhaps–to tell us that dog crap is objectively stinky, or that murder is objectively evil? Perhaps we have no need for this class of hypothesis. Rand and Rothbard both made similar moves in their ethics, as have many others. I do suspect that God could literally die, and that dog crap would stink just the same, and that murder would be just as wrong.

One might answer that there is another, purely natural sense in which the disgustingness of dog droppings is subjective: Perceiving this disgust requires a human sensory apparatus. Dogs, who have a different apparatus, appear to find the same smell delightful, or at least intriguing. We do not share our senses with dogs, and we perhaps would not share our morality with them either, were they to articulate one.

Our sentiments here are at the very least relational, because they depend on a relationship between a specifically human sensory apparatus and an external stimulus. Change either one, and the experience changes. Perhaps ethics is also like that.

But what does that mean? There’s actually a raging philosophical debate about the degree to which sensory evidence may be called subjective and what the implications of this determination might be. There’s another raging debate about the degree to which feelings are subjective, and a third and related debate about the degree to which moral facts may be subjective (or objective) as well.

We’re not going to be able to settle any of these here. We can do no more than gesture at them. But it’s reasonable to surmise that most libertarians are not moral anti‐​realists. I know that I certainly am not: It seems obvious to me that we can argue about ought statements. It seems equally obvious to me that some arguments about ought statements are well‐​reasoned, while others are less well‐​reasoned. To my mind this is all that ethics requires to constitute a genuine branch of philosophy, one that inquires about real things rather than illusions.

The fact that ethics treats of human minds and human experiences is not so troubling either: “Human” is the only flavor of mind, or of experience, that I ever expect to have. My humanity is as certain–perhaps as objective–a fact as I ever expect to encounter. It daunts me very little that some other facts and experiences, such as those pertaining to ethics, are bound up with the human condition. Well, so am I.

But let’s accept moral anti‐​realism provisionally anyway. When we do, we will find that the payoffs are interesting and varied. Not all who apprehend the death of God go on to become Leopold and Loeb. In fact hardly any of them do; the inference that moral anti‐​realism fosters wicked behavior is empirically false. A fair accounting would also consider the wicked behavior of those who think that they act in God’s name: If only God could be dead to them, too.

For existentialists, what remains after the death of God is the merely human search for authenticity. Even without an objective morality, we may go through life in one of two ways. We may imagine ourselves the victims of circumstance, who strive whenever possible to avoid responsibility, a condition that Sartre termed bad faith. Or we may recognize that even despite all circumstance, we remain in some sense profoundly and inwardly free. Even after the death of God, and even in the direst of circumstances, we may still exercise free choice. And when we do, we live responsibly and authentically.

As Irwin writes, “Responsibility does not come in degrees. I am always fully responsible for my actions and the meaning I give my world–I cannot blame society, economic forces, or circumstances.”

And here is where Irwin is at is most insightful: If the foregoing is right, he asks, isn’t Marxism obviously wrong? Does Marxism not place the blame for much of human action on “society, economic forces, [and] circumstances”? Irwin draws on the work of Raymond Aron to argue convincingly that there is a radical, unresolvable tension between existentialism and Marxism. Marxism might even be said, in existentialist terms, to constitute a worldwide, history‐​spanning exercise in bad faith. How on earth did midcentury existentialists come to accept it? Irwin suggests that it was largely a function of the circumstances of contemporary intellectual life in Europe. If he’s right, the existentialists should be pretty embarrassed.

Whatever the case, Irwin recommends that today’s existentialists reject Marxism. And, although morals may at best be a set of fictions for existentialists, Irwin does argue that some strategies for living are more authentic than others, and he recommends that an existentialist should cultivate a prudent approach to life: “We do not need morality to guide our actions if we have prudence, the non‐​moral virtue of choosing and acting to fulfill our desires.”

The placement of the adjective “non‐​moral” in the foregoing sentence amounts to the most startling undefended assertion in the book. Irwin’s recommendation that we cultivate prudence, and his failure to defend the claim that prudence is not moral, are apt to leave him sounding like a virtue ethicist despite himself. Prudence is usually thought a virtue, after all–classically, it’s the mother of all virtues–and it is by no means obvious that prudence should be considered “non‐​moral.” I would be particularly interested to see how Irwin might defend this claim.

It is possible, for example, that he means prudence solely in the economic sense, that is, of fitting means to ends in the most efficient manner; in this case, one might develop a fully functioning praxeology that sits comfortably inside an existentialist moral anti‐​realism: What is the thing that we are trying to maximize the most? To which Ludwig von Mises might say: It doesn’t matter. Given that man acts, and given that resources are scarce, we can derive such‐​and‐​such conclusions about human action.

A more thorough examination of this possibility, or of some other defense of the non‐​moral status of prudence, would not have been amiss in a slim volume like this one. In any case, though, Irwin argues that a prudent individual will soon recognize that property rights and markets tend to maximize the fulfillment of desires. Still, though, property is not to be considered a natural right on this account; property is conventional and agreed upon, and in this sense it is artificial.

Although Irwin recommends the free market, he draws the line at consumerism. It is in this phase of his argument–and not in his gloss of Sartre–that Irwin sounds least like a conventional libertarian:

To grow, capitalism aims to create desire for unnecessary goods and services… The self‐​defining existentialist will find consumer culture crass without necessarily rejecting the free market that makes it possible. With freedom comes responsibility, including the responsibility to be an authentic individual with the sense of a personal style that self‐​definition makes possible. It is important, of course, to get self respect from sources other than material possessions.

I believe the typical libertarian’s reaction to the above complaint would run as follows: “Well, what about it? If you think consumerism is crass, don’t buy stuff. It’s none of my business. And it’s none of your business if I do.”

This though would miss the point of Irwin’s critique, which is not a social critique at all. If I may be forgiven for using the word, it’s an ethical critique. For the existentialist, bad faith is the sin that lies beyond sin, and to derive one’s self‐​worth from consumption is inauthentic.

I have heard my friends on the academic left repeatedly level similar charges: Americans derive too much of their self‐​respect from consumer goods, and consumption crowds out more important things, like democratic participation or the life of the mind. Irwin sounds much the same, but with authenticity as the thing that gets sacrificed.

How academics reached their conclusions about ordinary Americans, I cannot say. I have never found them adequately defended. My experience of ordinary Americans–which academics certainly are not–leads me to believe that ordinary Americans derive their self‐​respect from family, religion, patriotism, and a variety of other allegiances that are perhaps felt less keenly by academics, but that are certainly not crassly material.

I wonder, in short, whether critiques of consumerism aim at a target that isn’t really there. Are there any actual consumerists? I might also be interested in one day conducting a debate about consumerism between Professor Irwin and Virginia Postrel, author of The Substance of Style and The Power of Glamour. I suspect the two of them could have a fascinating exchange about the role of consumer goods in an authentic human existence. Is there one? If so, what might it look like? (Lest I preempt a potential future edition of Cato Unbound , I should probably say no more.)

But my greatest difficulty with The Free Market Existentialist is as follows: I do not see how free market existentialism can solve the prudent predator problem. It may be the case, empirically speaking, that people who adopt moral anti‐​realism almost never become monsters. That’s surely a good thing, because there are lots of moral anti‐​realists out there. But do these people have rational reasons for acting as they do? It is the task of philosophy to provide just such reasons.

People who adopt moral anti‐​realism may well be effectively constrained by circumstance: They are members of a society, and society checks their impulses so thoroughly that the choice to act abominably seldom arises. But this is in no sense a philosophically satisfying reason. It’s an “is” and not an “ought.” Lacking an “ought,” what happens when circumstances change, and their non‐​moral reasons for not becoming monsters no longer apply?

In Irwin’s way of thinking, moral anti‐​realists are further constrained by fundamentally amoral disgust reactions that are the products of evolution: Humans instinctively flinch at the thought of throwing an infant against a brick wall, for instance, and these sorts of reactions are very hard to overcome. Again, though, while I am happy that we have such reactions, they do not amount to moral reasons.

We should also ask: what about those whose circumstances are not socially constrained? What is stopping them from committing enormities, if not ethical scruples? And have we not developed a whole set of institutions–I mean the state and its subsidiaries–that seem designed to defeat our evolved disgust reactions, and to shelter the leadership from social constraints? Maybe I can’t commit one murder, which would be a tragedy. But with the help of the state I can commit a million murders, and–for me at least–that’s only a statistic. Irwin believes we typically behave in ways that track conventional morality even if we reject it. Maybe so. But if that rule fails anywhere, it fails for the most powerful.

In reading The Free Market Existentialist, I regret to say that my thoughts turned to Benito Mussolini, who once declared, “From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.”[3]

True, moral anti‐​realism is not the same as moral relativism. But the outcome would appear similar enough to give us pause. Irwin quotes Sartre as follows: “all human activities are equivalent… Thus it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.”

To which I would answer: No. The drunk is more or less innocent.

  1. Here’s a rough, informal statement of the argument. A more rigorous attempt will appear in a forthcoming anthology on the multiple foundations of libertarianism. I’ve even argued that Ayn Rand was a Kantian despite herself, and that a Rando‐​Kantian synthesis is the only way to save what’s worth saving in Objectivism. No, I don’t expect much agreement on that one.
  2. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We’ve gotten along well enough so far, more or less. One of the questions I hope to raise in this essay is whether the new foundations are worth the new divisions. The knee‐​jerk reaction is that they can’t be, but this often arises from a partisan consideration of one’s particular foundation as the only true foundation around. I try hard to be a compatibilist, but as we will see, I do have my reservations here.
  3. Benito Mussolini, cited in Henry Veatch, Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962. p 41.