The term virtue is often used equivocally in both scholarly and ordinary discourse. The term is sometimes employed to mean whatever is morally good or appropriate. However, it has traditionally been used more precisely to mean certain qualities of character, or dispositions to choose actions, that are essential to living the right kind of life. As Aristotle defined it in the Nicomachean Ethics, virtue “is a settled disposition toward actions by deliberate choice.” According to Aristotle and those who have followed him, one acquires virtues by engaging in virtuous acts: “A man becomes just by doing just actions and temperate by doing temperate actions; and no one can have the remotest chance of becoming good without doing them.” He ridicules those who, “instead of doing virtuous acts, resort to merely talking about them and think that they are philosophizing and that by doing that they will become virtuous.”
If one uses the term to refer to certain dispositions of a person’s character that both produce and express moral excellence, which is the traditional meaning of virtue and the one used here, then there is no easy or direct connection between libertarianism and virtue, either theoretically or particularly. With respect to libertarian political theory, the idea of using the state to directly promote virtuous conduct would violate its central principles. Practically speaking, the pluralism embedded in libertarianism would appear to leave no room for using force to promote the “right kind of life” or the “right sort of character,” although libertarians have no problem with individuals or groups achieving or promoting those things through voluntary means, such as education, persuasion, and example.
There is a general tension in classical liberalism between the concern with procedural rights, which specify limits, constraints, and procedures rather than goals or ends, and the traditionally nonprocedural and substantively specified characteristics of virtue found in much of traditional moral theory. Indeed, a central element of classical liberal theories of social order is the observation that individuals can interact for mutual benefit without any real knowledge or concern about each others’ characters.
Although virtue and liberty are not directly linked, a number of connections between the two may nonetheless be identified. Libertarianism implies free and open markets, and it has been a common view, at least since Adam Smith, that such markets promote certain widely appreciated virtues, such as honesty, thrift, civility, probity, temperance, tolerance, and prudence. Having to please others in order to be successful in the market, rather than being able to use force to accumulate wealth, provides a certain discipline that engenders the habits just mentioned.
Free-market competition among providers of goods and services tends to reward those who exhibit such traits and to encourage others to emulate them. But can free-market competition emerge if such virtues are absent? In recent years, there has been substantial interest in the issue of whether markets are dependent on preexisting moral dispositions. The question has become especially acute since the fall of the Soviet empire because markets in a number of formerly communist countries have had difficulty taking root, although no state appears to have been systematically and deliberately preventing them from doing so. The issues and problems are complex, and their study offers many opportunities for advancing our knowledge of how self-ordering systems emerge and sustain themselves. It may be that the rule of law and well-defined property rights are more central to the development of markets than is any given set of moral dispositions. At the same time, the establishment of the rule of law and well-defined property rights may be dependent in some important way on moral beliefs and attitudes. It is not obvious which must precede the other.
Similarly, a culture of scientific inquiry and progress may generate certain intellectual virtues, such as willingness to listen to criticism, toleration of alternative hypotheses, willingness to consult reason and evidence, and so forth. Yet such a culture may require the preexistence of the virtues it fosters for it to emerge at all. Once virtue-generating institutions are established, they may well continue to generate and sustain the virtue necessary for their perpetuation. Even so, two questions would still remain: Are all or the most important virtues sustained by the market order? Are the dispositions engendered by such practices and institutions truly virtues in any recognizable classical sense, that is, are they goods pursued for their own sake and not because they contribute to some other end, such as successful generation of wealth? Libertarians have not written a great deal about either of those questions perhaps because they do not apparently need to be answered for free societies to exist. They would be relevant, instead, to the important question of whether such societies are good.
If the establishment and maintenance of free societies are dependent on the prior presence of at least some virtues, then presumably libertarians would need to be concerned about the generation of those virtues where they do not now exist. That would presuppose a common moral framework or foundation for libertarianism. Inasmuch as libertarianism is a political theory and does not aspire to be a more widely embracing moral theory, a variety of moral theories might be compatible with it. Those theories might have different approaches to the virtues. For example, the classical liberal writer Wilhelm von Humboldt, who exercised a great influence over John Stuart Mill’s work On Liberty, identified “the true end of man” as “the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole” and argued that “the evil results of a too extensive solicitude on the part of the state are … shown in the suppression of all active energy, and the necessary deterioration of the moral character.” The key concept for Humboldt is Bildung, which, rendered into English, carries the sense of education or formation of character.
Ayn Rand articulated another perspective associated with libertarianism that openly professes the importance of virtue. In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” she identifies certain qualities of character as being necessary for living the right kind of life. Those virtues include rationality, productiveness, and pride. Although Rand believed that if these virtues were widely possessed society would certainly be better, her justification of them was not based on their effects on social life and interaction. In this particular regard, her position is akin to that of von Humboldt, in that she defends these virtues as constituents of a good or fully human life.
For Rand, free-market exchange is a reflection of the virtues she championed. Yet that again raises a version of the problem mentioned previously. It would seem that traditional methods of moral education would be needed to generate the virtues she admires and, in turn, the social order that would be sustained by them. Yet her ethical philosophy stands in some contrast to what she regards as the altruistic and virtue-destroying bias of the dominant philosophical and educational traditions and institutions. Presumably, then, the right ideas about ethics and markets are needed to inform a new tradition of moral education, which will in turn support the market order as well as make possible morally virtuous lives that are good in and for themselves. If Rand is right, without the replacement of those traditions by more suitable ideas, the market framework would overlay a substratum unsuitable to its support, making the collapse of the free society inevitable.
In general, libertarian thinkers believe that virtues must be voluntarily self-realized to be virtues at all, that force and virtue are generally incompatible. Libertarianism is by no means unique or original in wondering about the connection between virtue and social order. That problem is as old as Socrates. But by leaving the state out of the definition and direct promotion of virtue, libertarianism offers a unique perspective on virtue—one that separates it from politics as other approaches do not. That separation may serve not to diminish virtue, but to give it an added focus or importance.
Aristotle. Nicomacheaon Ethics. Hippocrates G. Apostle, trans. Grinnell, IA: Peripatetic Press, 1984.
Buchanan, James. The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty. Vol. 1. Chap. 5. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1999.
Den Uyl, Douglas J. “Liberalism and Virtue.” Public Morality, Civic Virtue, and the Problem of Modern Liberalism. T. William Boxx and Gary M. Quinlivan, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000.
Humboldt, Wilhelm von. The Limits of State Action. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1993 .
Macedo, Stephen. Liberal Virtues. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Mueller, John. “Democracy, Capitalism, and the End of Transition.” Post-Communism: Four Perspectives. Michael Mandelbaum, ed. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Books, 1996.
North, Douglas. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet Books, 1964.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1979.
Originally published .